Published: April 15th 2012March 21st 2012
We arrived in Hoi An the previous day and settled into a hotel located midway between the old town and the long beach that stretches from Danang in the north to Cua Dai beach near Hoi An. Danang was used by the Americans as a place of R&R during the war, with thousands of servicemen using the beach during short break away from the front. Its not surprising to see people here that are darkly coloured or who have curly hair, the result of liaisons with the locals.
Hoi An town itself is a UNESCO heritage site and a great example of what an important trading port of the 16 and 17th century looked like. The quaint two story buildings (2 storey because of annual floods) with their distinct style and faded colour are a huge draw card for visitors to Vietnam. The town itself is now over run by tailor and shoe shops of varying quality and hordes of western tourists - hence our choice to pick accommodation slightly out of town.
In the evening of our arrival, Ellen and Alex slink off to explore the nightlife. Gina and I find a little bar cum restaurant tucked away
in the back alleys with a live classical guitarist playing. A very pleasant evening. The next day Gina, Alex and Ellen shoot off to the Red Bridge cooking school for an all day session. They have great fun and are invigorated about the local food. Sadly in the evening we visit a small cafe that gets good reviews in Lonely Planet (Cafe 43) and find that it is not really all that good. Unfortunately we had a number of ordinary feeds in Hoi An, dissapointly because it is supposed to be one of best places to eat in VN having lots of dishes that are speciality items here like the cau lao noodles and a very fine stuffed dumpling called white rose. These are dishes made by only a handful of families in the area but everyother restaurant in the town carries, some good and others damn right ordinary.
Alex is keen to do a trip out to the Cham Islands, a group of large island about 20 kms off shore highly regarded for diving and snorkelling. On the day that they could have gone, the water is rough and the trip is put aside because conditions would have
made snorkelling a waste of time and the trip out would have been a nightmare. Instead Alex and Ellen peddled to the beach for some down time.
Gina and I also go for a peddle to the beach and on through the herb gardens that ring Hoi An. We bump into a fellow who is riding solo and looks a bit lost. He tags a long with us for the ride back into town including passing a school group doing parade duty with AK47 assault rifles. They sort of looked plastic, I hope...
Over drinks we discover that Ben is travelling with a couple of mates who have been together for some months. The other guys are reluctant to dabble in the local fare instead locking themselves in their hotel rooms and surviving on oreos and pringles. We take Ben under our wing and despite the age difference he is clearly happy for the company. We introduce him to some of the local fare including banh mi, a crusty bread roll stuffed with pate, roast pork, pickle vegetables, coriander and another type of fermented meat. The roll is covered in small chillies and pungent fish sauce. Ben takes
a huge liking to the rolls.
In the evening, Ben joins us for dinner. On a recommendation we again start with a disappointment which is now par for the course in Hoi An. The Lac Viet riverside restaurant is now in Australian hands but the wait to recieve drinks had us prepared to do a runner on the place. We quickly decide that the service a bad portent for any ideas of a quality meal. We quickly moved on further up the riverside promenade and found a spot that did plenty of good cheap food. Young Ben turns to be former apprentice footballer at Bristol Rovers until the booze and girls prooved too great a distraction at the age of 18. With football at the front we had plenty to talk about. Gina and I retired as all oldies do and the young ones kicked on.
The next day (28 Feb) was a travel day. We had to make the journey Hoi An up to Danang, then take the train onto Dong Hoi via Hue. The journey is only 300kms but will take us 9.00 am until 5pm. We then need to take another half an hour by
taxi to our destination at Phong Nha farmstay. The journey is pleasant enough - a short hop by taxi to Danang railway station, departing there on the SE6 at 10.30am to arrive at Dong Hoi at 5pm. The rail journey is particularly slow because it crosses a pretty high pass (Hai Van pass) just south of Danang and offers spectacular views back across Danang harbour. Its really special as the train propels itself slowly up the winding track with steep drops away ever so close to the rail line. The view is just so spectacular that Ellen and Alex sleep through just about all of it.
We eventually makeit to the pleasant but sadly overlooked town of Dong Hoi. A driver engaged by the farmstay is there to pick us up and take us the 20 or so kms to complete the days travel.