We’d noticed a Big C supermarket on the way into Hue on the bus and for something to do as much as anything, we took a walk there.
There are Big C’s in Thailand but this was the first one we’d seen outside of there and Nel wanted a new pair of shoes after her handmade red Roman sandals had fallen apart.
It was another hot day – it’s just struck me that that’s a pointless thing to point out, and we’d had breakfast at the little street side cafe that sells banana pancakes, Allez Boo.
Allez Boo, where the staff are lovely and the beer is free
And fans and lights plug into a tree.
Now I’m sorry but I still can’t bring myself to eat noodles and pork first thing in the morning I’m afraid. Nel will sit and slurp down a delicious bowl of noodle soup though, while I’m eating lovely banana pancakes with honey.
The supermarket is on three levels and has the same slightly shabby and sad feeling that old Woolworths stores used to have. Not well lit and a little bit run down with listless floor tiles.
On the bottom level were some stalls with glass cases where girls were selling sunglasses and lighters and leather belts and such things.
You get the impression that just one sale would make their day worthwhile. Shops off the tourist beat are generally not well stocked and you can only imagine that their overheads must be very low indeed. The snake wine man had told us that his shop had belonged to his grandfather, and that was a very small shop indeed, not much bigger than somebody’s bathroom and we wondered how many jars of snakes he might shift in a week, how many people buy the stuff nowadays when the younger Vietnamese people are aspiring to Western culture and don’t seem to drink much anyway. Well you can’t when the country closes at ten every night.
There was an escalator to take you from the first floor up to the top where we weren’t allowed to enter the shop by a security man.
He pointed towards something we couldn’t see and we assumed that it was an entrance and that we were trying to go in through the exit. It wasn’t, it was a locker room where another security guard took my day pack and locked it away. That had our camera and passports in it!
We still weren’t allowed in the shop though until Nels handbag thing had been heat sealed into a plastic wrapper. Paranoid or what! We assumed there must be a lot of shoplifting goes on and there were as many security men as shoppers. We were a bit of a curiosity and I got paranoid that the security seemed to be following us around but I think they just wanted to look at the white people. Ironically one of them was albino.
We checked out of the hotel yesterday morning and took a taxi to the railway station to get a train out of Hue to Dong Hoi.
Our decision to miss Dong Ha and head for the very similarly pronounced Dong Hoi was based on some misinformation online.
I’ve said this before but I really should listen to myself and ignore everything online except for indisputably factual information. Peoples opinion should be completely ignored unless it’s prefaced with a statement in big letters, perhaps flashing neon coloured letters, to inform any readers that it’s just an opinion and should be discounted out of hand if you bother to read it at all and that it’s probably best to not go to the trouble of reading it anyway.
We turned up in plenty of time for the train, but not in time to get seats next to each other, although people did swap around when we were on the train so we could sit together.
We had an hour and a half to wait so we were directed to a very nice pavement cafe by the man whose family own it, who asked where we were going. We told him we wanted to see the caves and the demilitarized zone – that’s DMZed, (not DMZee).
He told us that we wouldn’t be able to go to the DMZ from Dong Hoi, and we said ‘oh’ not believing him for a moment, Dong Hoi being so close, its hard to believe there’s not someone capitalizing on it. Well it turns out he was right.
When we boarded the train we had a bugger of a job lifting the rucksacks up onto the luggage rack, it being loaded with tv (television) sets, shopping, a bag of stinking fruit, baskets and all manner of stuff and things, but a nice old man with really ugly feet that he later rested on the headrest of the seat in front of him moved some of this clutter for me and we were ready to go.
We were still ready to go quite a bit later and were relieved to be finally going a long time after that when the train finally left the station.
You can buy a ticket for a hard seat in a carriage without aircon, or a hard seat with aircon, or a soft seat with aircon. It was meant to be just a four hour journey so we went for the soft seat with aircon option. We didn’t realise that this also came with very loud music playing from tiny distorted speakers and a Nicholas Cage film which was being simultaneously translated into Vietnamese by a woman. Or in fact a man on a stool sleeping with his head on my armrest. None of these things were mentioned online as an option, but the train did get into Dong Hoi earlier than it said it would in the timetable. The journey was spectacular, as is every journey in Vietnam, passing paddy fields and over many rivers on rickety bridges, many of which were being replaced by new ones of the exact same design which were being built on rails right next to the line ready to be slid sideways into place once the old one has been dismantled and removed. Where does all this water come from?
I was very upset to see a Water Buffalo which was being eaten by a bird on its back which was pecking it to death slowly.
It was quite a trip and it might have been a wonderful experience if it hadn’t been for the music and the woman talking over Nicholas Cage.
I’m not sure it’s better than taking a bus to be honest, even with people throwing up next to you.
Dong Hoi isn’t a town that’s much visited by tourists. It’s quite pretty though, another town on a big river that flows into the sea and in fact the ocean is just minutes away. There are fishing boats and a bridge that is lit up at night with coloured lights that change and zoom and flash across its span, going from blue to purple and yellow to red and then all coloured. It’s pretty impressive. Not all of the streets are lit though and a lot of them have dangerous cavernous holes. That’s quite a bit less impressive, and leaning towards absurdity.
We found a guesthouse and went to find food.
There are quite a few street cafes but we knew that there was going to be no English menu and very little English spoken and I’ve got to be really fed up with small amounts of noodles.
We’ve come to the conclusion that people in Vietnam must spend most of the day eating.
There are street cafes along every pavement, forcing you to step into the traffic, and every few meters there’s a restaurant. In some areas there are rows of restaurants both sides of the road and they seem to do ok, they always seem to have custom. We imagine the Vietnamese people must eat every couple of hours or so and we’ve wondered how people make a living when they spend so much time sitting eating noodles and cabbage on little plastic seats by the side of the road.
We were looking for a place that serves western food that was mentioned on one of the online sites, but the photocopied map that the very smiley and friendly and helpful guesthouse owner gave us was almost useless in its tiny minisculeness and Nel couldn’t make out the road names even when she wore both our reading glasses at the same time. And so we walked straight past the street it was on.
In our wretched hungriness we gave up looking for western food and walked into a restaurant/someone’s front room.
There was no menu. The lady showed us the pots of food in the kitchen, just past a pile of washing where baby was playing.
I left this down to Nel, I knew I wasn’t going to enjoy it.
There were flies, so she wisely chose the pot that had a lid on. It was pork and some cabbage stuff that might have been morning glory, and which had been cooked in fish stock. Nice.
Actually the pork wasn’t too bad, often the meat is boiled and it’s pretty fatty, which this was, and is served with a mound of rice and fishy leaves. No sauce or condiments, but they did have some warm beer and it came with a watery vegetably soup.
It was cheap and probably nutritious, also bland and boring. I never knew I cared about food so much.
On the way back to the guesthouse there is a bit of wall that houses the old Quang Binh citadel gate and just behind that we found the place we’d been looking for. They had a fridge and everything so the beer was lovely and cold.
Huê bridge is the purplest in Asia
A well stoned white man arrived on a bike and said hello, asking if we minded if he sat with us, and saying that he doesn’t often have the chance to talk to English people. We said that was fine, some local knowledge would be useful, but he was quite off his trolley and only made sense after he’d had a drink or two.
He teaches English and has lived here for six years in this sticky sticky heat. I really don’t think I could hack it.
He told me I remind him of his dad – oh, thanks – but went on to say his dad is really cool and has been a session drummer with the Average White Band amongst other big names. We had no reason to disbelieve him.
After a while a friend of his, Mr Qua, or something, who’s a colleague turned up and he didn’t speak a lot of English, and the bloke from Barnsley doesn’t speak a lot of Vietnamese, but we all clinked glasses and said ‘chee!’ a lot and whatever’s Vietnamese for ‘cheers!’ I can’t remember now.
We were there too late and had to wake up the smiley guesthouse owner when we got back but he was ok about that.
When we left though, the plump man who was sitting outside with a laptop apologised for the behaviour of these two blokes. He said the Mr Qua had insulted the staff and his wife. Of course we didn’t know this, not understanding any Vietnamese at all except for coffee, which is ca fe, and ice cream, which is kem. We *do* also know how to say hello and thankyou. It seemed these two blokes weren’t terribly highly regarded. Just like back at home we seem to be mixing with the wrong types.