Published: September 11th 2010September 10th 2010
It got considerably busier than this. Those are TV screens that you see hanging from the ceiling. Sad to think that if we had them on trains in the UK, they would probably have been vandalised.
We have moved on again and are hoping that tomorrow will we see our very first beach a) in Vietnam and b) of our trip. I guess, if we are being strictly technical about it, we have actually already seen beach on one of the islands in Halong Bay but it had the feel of imported builders sand about it and the water was pretty murky so my vote is that that one didn’t count.
Dong Hoi is described by the Lonely Planet as a “simple seaside town” from which tourists are wonderfully absent and as a decent place to break up the journey between Hanoi and Hue. So far, I wholeheartedly agree. It has broken up a journey and for that we are eternally grateful. It takes 8 hours on the Reunification Express to travel from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi and we were therefore lured to this place by the words “seaside” and “beaches” in its introduction. We are going to seek out the beaches tomorrow morning - early we are promising ourselves - so lets hope we are not disappointed there either.
Once again, this morning started early, 6.30am to be precise. As ever,
How to win Othello
By L K Portass 09 09 10
I struggled to persuade my eyelids to prop themselves open for a good ten minutes whilst being “encouraged” by Gregg to “come on”. Eventually (and in good time) we assembled ourselves in the reception/ ‘restaurant’ area of our ho(s)tel and decided that we had sufficient time to order breakfast before leaving.
Having now stayed in a number of Vietnamese ho(s)tels, I can tell you that some offer Vietnamese traditional foods for breakfast and others simply don’t. The Ngoc Anh Hotel falls in to the latter category and that is, perhaps, its only downfall.
Having being colonised by the French from 1847 to 1945, the Vietnamese know how to make fantastic baguettes that are wonderfully crunchy on the outside but melt in the mouth on the inside. I enjoyed these for two breakfasts whilst in Hanoi but, with the benefit of a further two day’s intake, really do need a break. Yet another example of how easily one can have too much of a good thing. I should just add that this morning’s offerings came with French cheese (a Laughing Cow triangle) and Jam for me and omelette and “French Cheese” for Gregg. Is it just me that thinks
The changing face of the landscape
between Ninh Binh and Dong Hoi with apologies for the dirty window between me and said landscape
that both of these combinations are a little bit odd?
We made sure we finished our breakfast as we didn’t know how easy it would be to get food in cattle class on the Reunification Express and Gregg then asked if we could pay and for the hotel to call a cab. Apparently, breakfast was included in the room price for which we had already paid and no sooner had we stood up to organise ourselves than the cab was there. To us, this was remarkable given the delayed manner in which we had exited Hanoi but, given the hour and the fact that Ninh Binh is to Hanoi as Tavistock (or Downham Market for Norfolk folk) is to Bristol, I guess we really shouldn’t have been that surprised.
We were both shaken by the hand as we left the hotel and the guy in charge this morning even walked us right to the cab and (we think) agreed the 20,000 VND fare with the driver before we got in. Again, we were thanked for coming and waved off. The staff at the Little Hanoi hotel had been great but the Ngoc Anh was on another level. It
must be the same the world over - those of us that live and work outside of the big cities have more time to stop and take care of those around us. Obviously, I am not biased about that at all.
Upon arrival at Ga Ninh Binh (we have learnt a new Vietnamese word - station), our taxi driver helped us out of the car and then stood waiting to be paid. Gregg handed him 20,000 VND and he looked a little affronted, garbled something at us and got back in the car. Gregg thought that he was thanking us for over paying, however I had seen the meter and noted that we had actually under paid by about 2,000 VND (6p) and therefore think that he was more than likely cross with us. Cue me feeling guilty for a while. The taxi driver didn’t speak any English and our Vietnamese now extends to “thank you” and “station” so I guess you could blame whatever happened on the language barrier. Since we knew that we were heading on to a hotel where no English is spoken, this was a less than auspicious start to the day.
Express runs about 4 services each way between Hanoi and Saigon daily and the popularity of this mode of transport became immediately apparent since the waiting area was full to brimming and the overflow, which we joined, spewed out on to the tarmac in front of the station. Far from the sleepy backwater station it had appeared to be yesterday when we booked the tickets.
There is quite a shopping scene at Ninh Binh station whilst passengers are waiting for the train to arrive. We watched a man peddling (unsuccessfully) books from a cardboard mini bookshelf re-enforced with gaffer tape, a woman selling fruit and another selling meat form baskets on the back of her bicycle. In order to assist her in this task, she had a set of scales for weighing the meat and she just chopped it up there and then and the transaction was complete. Just in case you were wondering, there wasn’t also a mini fridge on the back of her bike nor any kind of cool bag. I doubt that much, if any, of the meat that we have eaten since we have been here has seen the inside of a refrigerator and we
are, so far, living to tell the tale.
Suddenly, a female voice echoed over the loudspeaker system and everyone started to move, Gregg and I were temporarily separated in the melee which was a problem since he had both train tickets. Fortunately, even his little legs allow him to tower over most Vietnamese and therefore I was reunited with my ticket pretty swiftly.
There are no turnstiles at stations here but we did have to have our tickets punched by a lady standing by the door before stepping on to the platform. Have I mentioned before that the Great British Queue has no place in Vietnam? If not, here’s a quick re-cap: when you need to get somewhere and have been given the green light to do so, you stampede. Chivalry is also firmly non-vogue on these occasions.
We emerged in to one of two or three low platforms and views of the gardens of several houses that back on to the train line. Here, you climb up on to the train from almost ground level rather than from a platform that hides the train from the bottom of the door down as we do at home.
As we patiently waited, people quite happily crossed the tracks to stand in the shade of a train on the other side.
The tickets that we had were for seats 79 and 80 in hard seat carriage 5. It suddenly struck me that, if Vietnamese trains were anything like their Chinese counterparts, then we would probably need to board at the appropriate carriage rather than just climb on anywhere and then find said carriage. A pretty sensible system, if you ask me. The trouble was that we had no way of knowing where carriage 5 would stop so I sidled up to a group of ladies and pointed at my ticket and then the ground. She looked a little confused and called her friend who spoke some English. She said that we would be alright where we were, so we stayed there and waited. Shortly afterwards, there was another announcement over the tannoy following which everyone stared to move along the platform and the English speaking lady told us that we needed to move too. Once again, we felt extremely grateful that we had come across someone who was not only happy to help when asked but who had
passed on information that she realised we wouldn’t have understood.
The train arrived pretty much on schedule and we got on and found our way to our seats which were right at the other end of the carriage, one of which was being occupied by a little boy sitting opposite another little boy and a lady we assumed to be their grandmother. We didn’t want to sit down just anywhere since, it seemed to us, we had been given seat numbers for a reason. We pointed at our tickets and the seats and the lady beckoned for the boy to move and allowed us to sit down. I the meantime, Gregg had put our bags up above the seats opposite. Suddenly the lady started gesticulating as did a man sitting under them and they both made it pretty clear, in the nicest possible gesticulatory way, that we should have our bags above our own heads and not someone else’s. This resulted in one sticking out over the gangway which was, apparently, preferable.
Bags moved, we settled down for 8 hours on our wooden slatted seat and quickly became objects of fascination for the little boy sitting opposite me.
From the bridge between the main town and the Spit, great place for dragon flies and watching fishermen
We guessed that he was probably about 5 or 6 and his innocent big brown eyes constantly staring at us really melted both of our hearts. We got out our travel Othello, thinking that it would be easier to while away some of the time playing that than cards in the absence of a table. The little boy was absolutely hooked. The first game that we played, he must have watched nearly every turn. I feel duty bound to pause here to report that this game was perhaps the most overwhelmingly victorious game of Othello ever played - see picture below. By the way, I was playing with the white side up.
Whilst the little boy was fascinated byus, my eye was being caught by other happenings within the carriage. When we first got on, it was pretty empty and, until it was full, a drawn out game of musical chairs proceeded as people sat where they fancied until someone got on that had a ticket for that seat and they moved again, it seemed, to wherever they fancied. And so it went on, until they finally had no option but to sit in their own seats.
did make some sense because they were using the opportunity to lie along a bench to sleep whilst they could, everyone having been provided with a blanket shortly after boarding (I used mine as a fairly low rent cushion). Some of the passengers preferred to use the floor rather than the seats for sleeping and spread out matting, similar to rush matting beach mats, which they had either brought with them or were later handed out by one of the railway staff. There is nothing beneath the hard seats and therefore space to tuck yourself beneath them and while away an hour or two in the land of nod. Quite a challenging prospect for a westerner and not one that either of us was keen to try.
When the lady opposite decided to have a sleep she motioned to us to put our feet up on the her bench so that she could lie down where our feet had been and motioned to me that there was space for me too if I wanted. I declined as politely as I could. I wasn’t actually tired and there was far too much going on in and outside of the carriage
Little Silver fish fishing
These nets are hoisted up out of the water regularly throughout the day and remain submerged for the rest of the time. When lifted, they contain hundreds of little silver fish which are batted in to the centre and then emptied through a shute in to the bottom fo the coracle.
for me to want to miss any of it.
We needn’t have worried about the availability of food on board as trolleys carrying all manner of foods zoomed up and down the gangway (two even had a face off) for all but two hours of the journey which was when most people were resting and the T.V.s (yes really!) were switched off. One trolley of hot food went by which seemed to have the greatest uptake of all that was on offer and we therefore decided to share a tray of it. For 25,000 VND (about 85p) we received a massive portion of rice, some cabbage, a chicken drumstick, fried tofu and a decent helping of soy sauce. It was cheap, filled a hole and was considerably tastier than most food that I’ve tasted on trains at home.
Whilst the lady opposite was sleeping, the little boy was unbelievably well behaved. He had no toys to entertain him and simply occupied himself with marvelling at what he could see out of the window, watching us and poking his head over the top of the seat to see what was going on behind him. Eventually, looking as grown up
The fishing net in action
being winched from the little hut on stilts on the right hand side of the photo
as he could, he decided that he needed a drink of water and pulled a grubby cup and water bottle out of the lady’s bag. The bottle was pretty full and he realised that he was a little small to manage to pour it without causing a spillage. Gregg was enlisted to pour whilst the boy held the cup. The little boy made it very clear when there was enough in the cup and then settled down to drink whilst continuing to gaze out of the window.
A little later, I put our Vietnam guidebook on the shelf between me and him and set about reading my other book. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the boy was trying to sneak a peak at the pictures in the book and Gregg turned it around and opened the book for him so that he could see them properly. We had to go through the pictures twice and he seemed to show a particular interest in the page that had Kite surfing and canoeing on it. Later he also thumbed through Gregg’s tome (Stephen King’s latest) and, since there are no pictures in it, decided that the
I now understand exactly why people travel this way...if only...
noise made by fanning the pages was entertaining enough - for a short while anyway. Throughout, held close to him for dear life was his Power Rangers backpack - some things certainly don’t stop at borders!
Later on we attempted to play another game of Othello and, once again aroused the boy’s interest. After sitting opposite us for about six hours, he had become brave enough to suggest moves to Gregg by pointing his forefinger where he thought Gregg should place his next piece. Unfortunately, nearly every suggestion was unplayable but he was quite happy to nod when Gregg suggested alternatives. We were even helped in tidying the board away. And then he went back to staring out of the window - as did we.
Eventually, having passed through flat lands reminiscent of the fens, forest, limestone hills and back again, we arrived in Dong Hoi having checked with just about everyone that we could that the next station was indeed Dong Hoi. There are no signs on the platforms here so, if you have no idea where you are like us, it’s a bit of a lottery. Anyway, we made it and stepped off the train at
deserted white sand...who wouldn't?!?!?
around 4.15pm and into blistering heat.
Uncharacteristically, we accepted the very first offer of “Taxi?”, showed our driver where we wanted to go on the guide book map and agreed a price. There must have been a slight misunderstanding as he first to us to the 4* Sun Spar Resort, at which we shook our heads as vehemently as we could and showed him the map again. When we finally arrived at the budget end of the track, he helped us in with our bags and even had a joke with our hostess about the fact that he had taken us to the wrong place initially. Such was the hilarity that we almost forgot to pay and the driver looked a little embarrassed at having to ask.
If you are still with me, sorry that this is such a long entry but I feel that I am in good company; today we have travelled around 250 miles on the Reunification Express in 8 hours - an average speed of 31 mph!! If the Reunification Express feels no need for speed, then neither do I.
The place that we are staying is basic but still has
Life Guard Hut
Complete with two bodyboards...clearly nobody told them that you need surf for that.
aircon and a TV. Before leaving the UK, we each bought a silk YHA sleeping bag liner and a tropical quilt. Both have been put to good use here as neither of us really relished the thought of sleeping on nylon sheets. Should anyone reading this be about to head off travelling, I would thoroughly recommend the purchase of silk rather than cotton sleeping bag liners if you can run to the added expense (although we got ours at a significantly reduced internet price) because they are lighter to carry and feel extremely luxurious which is something that we are becoming increasingly grateful for - and that’s after only two weeks on the road!
Dong Hoi is a beautiful side town with beaches lining the seaward side of a spit of land that is accessed via a bridge. We are staying on the spit and therefore have a little walk in to town. On both occasions that we have ventured out to find food we have elected to leave the Guidebook behind, neglecting to remember that it contains the only map that we have of Dong Hoi.
Last night this meant that we ended up at an unnamed
in fairness to him you can see the beach from here and there was no one on it.
café (for which read street food) in a quiet part of town. The owners were extremely friendly and seemed to enjoy practising their English on us but unfortunately the Pho Bo (Vietnamese noodle soup) didn’t really taste of anything. After a morning on the beach (of which more later) we returned to our room before heading out to find lunch. We had played a few card games back in the room and therefore didn’t set out until about 2:3 0.
If this was an ordinary holiday, we would be on our way home now and therefore we’ve both just hit the point of realising that we are in this for the long term, as a consequence of which we just fancied something western to eat. The guidebook says that there is only one restaurant that does western food in town and even marks it on the map. So, off we went in search of something reassuringly familiar in 34 degrees plus of heat and with the sun glaring down on us. Although we had checked the map, Gregg had imagined that this place would be a short walk away. After about 30 minutes and visits to two ATM’s we
smaller than in Hong Kong but so ubiquitous that there was even a dead one in the fan in our room
still seemed to be no closer to the elusive western restaurant and were becoming rapidly dehydrated. We therefore briefly abandoned the search for food and commenced one for water.
You may recall that we have previously mentioned that shops here tend to send only one type of thing. None of those that we passed were of the type that sell water. Had we wanted motorbike repairs or white goods we would have been fine but water was definitely not on the menu in the part of town that we found ourselves in. Then, just as we were giving up hope (and I was getting ratty) we happened upon the street that had the western restaurant on and we set out to find number 28. Hurrah! Unfortunately however, no.28 is no longer a restaurant of any sort and is instead resolutely shut.
On with the hunt for water of which we eventually found the warm variety and then re-assigned ourselves to “project food”. Last night on walking back from dinner, I noticed a café that advertised that it had Wifi and which appeared to have aircon and we therefore settled on that as a destination. By the time we
now I know where to find my own little piece of paradise!
arrived, we were literally dripping and both about to self combust. We took our seats in front of a fan and waited for the menu. Then we realised that fans means no aircon, swiftly followed by the fact that the menu only seemed to have drinks on it and finally the discovery that there was no Wifi.
Neither of us had an ounce of will to move so we ordered a beer each (which tends to come in a 330ml can) and were handed the very first chilled drink that we have seen since arriving in Dong Hoi. Bliss.
By now it was nearly 5pm and we still hadn’t located food. We then remembered the little bakery that we popped into for a look last night and decided that we must be able to find something there. This was the first great decision of the day. We ordered two baguettes filled with whatever the man before us in the queue had and they were amazing. We have no idea what we were eating but it was unbelievably tasty and we may very well visit that bakery again for lunch tomorrow.
And what of the beach? Well, it
not to be confused with those used on the Norfolk Broads.
goes something like this. Last night, we came across a blog by someone who came to Dong Hoi about a year ago. They said that they had been staying at a budget place but had happened upon the Sun Spa resort whilst out and about and, being Western, had decided to wonder in and see if anyone noticed that they shouldn’t be there. So we, lead by Gregg, decided that we would give it a go chiefly because we are only about 400m away from it and their photos of the beach looked so amazing that it had to be seen. So, we rocked up, complete with rucksacks ,and were welcomed with a warm hello upon arrival and no questioning gazes. Had someone stopped us and asked us to pay we would have been more than willing to do so but nobody really seemed to care who we were or why we were there.
The beach was evening more amazing than it had looked in the photos, not least, because we were the only people on it all morning - and in the pool. It is far enough away from a road that the continual beeping couldn’t reach us
and the only sound to be heard from the beach - heaven!
and the only sounds were the boats going about their fishing business. It was heavenly. I don’t think that I am brave enough to do it tomorrow tho!
I thought that this would be all for today but this evening' s meal deserves a mention. We went to a place a few doors down the road which, like many eateries in vietnam is composed of an open fronted building with tables and small plastic seats outside. The menu was entirely in vietnamese and we knew one word - Bo- which is beef. We therefore randomly picked a beef dish and tried to explain that we would like rice to go with it. Unfortunately, our gesticulating was in vain and we received just theone beef dish - beef with garlic and pineapple. It was delicious but not enough for the two of us so we then took to the menu again. I thought that mi might be noodles and when one of the workers came over to take our order, with the assistance of the tassles on my scarf, Gregg was able to establish that I was right and proceeded to randomly pick a Mi dish. Luck was on our side this evening as he had selected, it turned out, noodles with prawns and squid. As we finished this dish conversation turned to our culinary experiences so far in Vietnam and we agreed that we are finally starting to pick some real winners.
The eatery was effectively on a very wide pavement along the road down to the beach and traffic plodded up and down troughout - cars, motorbikes, push bikes and a little boy riding a baby walker (one of those things with wheels) up and down the road complete with baby sibling along for the ride as if some kind of scooter.
And one final thing to leave you with: (motorbike + microphone) x speakers = mobile karaoke. I should know, I'm listening to it right now.
The hunt for Yum Yum Berries is still coming up negative;
We are still Dehli Belly free;
The toilets are still western; and
Bus vs. Train - Even hard seats on the slow Express wins