Travelogue SEA 3: Hanoi – Hue – Hoi An – Da Nang

19-21 December 2011

So, the story was half right. The bus is a single storey, but 3 rows of full length (for a local, snug for the fuller-figured Westerner) bunk beds running the length of the bus. Still not bad for US$30 a piece (compared to the train at $56 each).

After some confusion over the haphazard numbering (Chris and I were next to each other and #39 and #15 respectively), we settled into our bunks for the first leg of the journey, taking us from Hanoi to Ninh Binh (from 18h45 to 20h30).

We passed the time chatting (amongst ourselves, with the Kiwis and with our new European travel companions), trying to fathom the unfathomable plot of the Vietnamese soapie being flighted on the small screens suspended from the roof throughout the bus and awkwardly trying to play Cribbage using a duvet in the aisles to prevent it turning to slippage.

Ninh Binh turned out to be a sleazy truck-stop where we could buy food and/or use the bathrooms. The staff were terse and only allowed us to choose from the 5 meal options with picture/number options like in McD’s, despite our protests that we were fine with the menu being in Vietnamese. The bathrooms were even worse. Nonetheless we ordered beef with noodles, which was served with chilli soy sauce and was very tasty.

Back on the bus and bunked up for the night. The bunks are arranged in rows sort of sled-style, with inclined shoulder section and enclosed section from the knee down which fits under the incline of the person in front of you. The beds worked for me, being just marginally too short so that if I lay on my side, I only had to bend my knees to fit comfortably. Christian wasn’t quite as lucky and had to sleep with left knee pointed to the bunk above and right leg in the aisle. The little Vietnamese girl on the other side of me was stretched full length AND had her togbag at her feet! They’re very compact people!

Mercifully, got in a 6 hour solid sleep and still managed to doze for another 2 until we pulled into Hue (pronounced ‘Hway‘) at 8h30. To our surprise, our bus company had altered the timetable such that we now had a 4+ hour stop before continuing on to Da Nang (and our friends on to Hoi An).

It turned out for the best as we grabbed a driver for 150,000 Vietnamese Dong (ZAR60) between 4 of us and took in the sights of this Ancient town, which was where the Nyugen Dynasty sat until 1947.

The main point of interest is the Citadel, which seems to have housed the whole city and within it the Forbidden Purple City where the Emperor and important people went about their thing. While you can still visit the Thai Hoa Palace (Palace of Supreme Harmony) and its pavilions, pagodas and garden gazebos, it’s very sad that the Forbidden Purple Palace was ravaged in the Second World War and then finally destroyed completely by a fire in 1947 such that it just stands as a mossy open patch today.

We exited the Citadel at the back in search of sustenance and were very lucky to stumble upon a local bakery that fed us delicious fresh baguettes (stuffed with sliced chicken, pate, mayo, cucumber, fresh herbs sprigs and a hot freshly fried egg) for a measly VND 10,000 apiece (ZAR 4).

Unfortunately, it started to drizzle so we decided to traverse the outside of the Citadel and head back to where our driver was only supposed to meet us half an hour later at the flagtower opposite the Citadel’s rain entrance. As luck would have it, the driver was not only early, but also headed in our direction and spotted us so we headed back to the Hotel where we’d be meeting the bus in an hour… And busied ourselves with trying out Hue’s local beers (Hude – excellent; Festival – OK).

The bus arrived in Vietnamese time (similar to Africa time, “5 minutes” is never ever that) and, as usual, the guide ushered us into the bus with an insistence that implied that HE had been waiting for US all along!

We had a slightly better layout on this journey seeing as it was unreserved seating and we were first on. We nabbed for ourselves the first 4 bottom bunks on the left, which were backed by the WC so made for a private enclave for us and the NZ’ers. Christian had snuck off to get cold beers (Huda) for the bus trip, but was met by the guide with rapid fire Vietnamese, shaking head and wagging finger. Clearly, not a fan of roadies. Heated negotiation ensued, resulting in the compromise of being allowed 3 on the bus, but having to put 3 in the togbag in the hold. Short-lived moral victory on the guide’s part when he then wanted to ticket check (again) and we fished the togbag from the hold under the guise of getting tickets. The Huda was successfully smuggled in and good time was had by all.

We again stopped at a dodgy truckstop for a meal break (crab soup and pork baguette) and ablution opportunity. The toilet on the bus was broken… Which had nearly led to fisticuffs between the guide and a particularly aggro Manc passenger whose wife wanted to pee about 5 minutes into the journey. The guide was braver than I’d have been and stood his ground with the biff with scars on his face and tattoos on his neck!

Christian again stocked up with roadies, much to the guide’s chagrin.

In the last stretch of the journey we changed our minds about our destination and bypassed Da Nang and went through to Hoi An. We’d intended to be based in Da Nang and daytrip to Hue and/or Hoi An on one or both of our days, but seeing as we were later than intended, had seen and done Hue and were the only ones stopping in Da Nang, Hoi An seemed the better choice all round.

What a great decision. Hoi An is charming and quaint and, although it was more or less constantly drizzling, we had a great time.

We were met at the bus station by some hotel touts and bargained them down from $15 to $10 for a room. They taxied us to the hotel, which was a few blocks further out of town than we would have preferred, but the room was so spacious and clean that we couldn’t resist. The others opted to stay in the town so we parted ways, but made arrangements to meet up later for dinner etc.

It was great to have a shower and get into clean clothes – and be able to stretch out on a real (big) bed, The TV also had several English channels which was a new experience and we found out that Jon Bon Jovi has died, which we knew would be a gem of a conversation piece for later!

Met for dinner at 7 at a spot that Rob (one of the NZ’ers) had been to on his last trip to Hoi An and enjoyed immensely. The beers were trickling after a day of roadies, but the food was amazing. Christian had a humongous burger with cheese and bacon and i had a tower of a club sandwich welling with chicken, bacon, cheese and sauces. Not bad for a meal of ZAR100 all in.

Christian had decided to get the tailored silk shirts that Hoi An is famous for, so we headed to the esteemed Kimmy’s Tailor to pick fabrics and get him measured up (maybe not so smart after the enormous dinner, but still…) then headed out to check out the old town shops and find a watering hole.

We found a colourful spot called Before N Now and it wasn’t long before another table of travellers had pulled our table to theirs and we were swapping stories with Canadians, Norwegians and an Iranian American. We of course hadn’t intended the merge, but all career-travellers seem keen to repeat the ‘where are you from? where have you been? where are you going?’ routine, so we humoured. And the world seems to love South African travellers, with very few having visited our country so the stream of opinions and questions flow endlessly.

Was lovely to be able to walk back to the hotel – a good breath of fresh air and getting the blood flowing always makes sleep that much sweeter, longer and deeper. So deep, in fact, that we completely overslept and missed Christian’s 11h00 fitting, only rousing at 11h20! No harm done, we got there at 12h00 – and the shirts were fab, needing only minor tweaks.

Met up with the NZ’ers for lunch on the riverfront. Found an excellent little spot that served all the local specialities and were delighted with a selection consisting of steamed white rose dumplings (pork), deep fried wanton (pork) and cao lau (a thick white noodle with pork strips and crisp veg in a salt and pepper stock). All delicious!

The afternoon was spent wandering through the Ancient town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the markets, the temples, the alleyways. Really good afternoon, just a pity about the intermittent drizzle, although it was light enough that we were never really wet or cold.

Collected Christian’s shirts at 4pm (all really excellent), had a last ‘fresh beer’ (VND 3,000 each) with the NZ’ers and headed back to the hotel to get our private car ride back to Da Nang (US$ 12 for the car). Turned out to be a shorter ride than expected, about 20 minutes and we got deposited at our hotel, Sun Sea which is right on the famous China Beach (My Khe).

We took a mega walk along the beachfront promenade, which was a pleasure with its wide paved sidewalks and palm tree-lined seafront. Hadn’t intended for it to be such a long walk, but we were trying to get a better look at a statue that we couldn’t work out if it was around the corner or over the harbour, Eventually found out that we couldn’t get there on foot, but our walk was still rewarded with a very local pub at the end, where we thought we would have dinner… until we realised that we were way out of our depth in figuring out what the menu board was offering… and there was some very scary looking sea food still swimming around in tubs and fishtanks! We had our beers (served by Tiger promo girls in very fancy wool 2 piece branded Tiger suits) and some of the peanuts (in shells) and tiny speckled eggs (also served in shells, clearly from the birds in cages hanging overhead), paid our bill and headed back toward the hotel.

Found a nice restaurant for dinner and were very lucky to have an English speaking Maitre’ D who was very patient in explaining the options and some of the more complicated dishes and accompaniments. We settled on a shrimp with crispy noodles and a chicken hotpot that is served at the table with a little cooker and a pot of stock that has a halo around it laden with meat and veg which you add to the pot and cook as you go along. Both very yum. Total meal cost, including beers, VND300,000 (ZAR 120).

We’re now back at the hotel and intending to hit the beach first thing in the morning to get a swim in China Beach’s famous and infamous waters, then we’re off to Ho Chi Minh City.