Saturday, 6 February 2016

Everybody knows this is Nowhere ( 48 hours in Dong Hoi )

The answer to  'How did I get here?' was provided in the previous post.  More important is the question Where is NOWHERE? . (Hint: IF you listen to the song and IF you look up  the lyrics, just replace HOME by VIETNAM and HERE by VANCOUVER and this song makes perfect sense ;-)
My train reaches Ga Dong Hoi at 7:40 am. I  rebut the usual offers of taxis and private homes and head straight for the nearest bank machine.  GOOD. My travel card has funds available again. At first I thought I'd walk the 5 km to the hotel, but my laptop battery drained and I couldn't get Wifi at the train station for my cell, so I have no idea which way to go and walk back to the train station to take a taxi.

I arrive at the hotel at about 8:15 am, walk to the reception desk, and at first am told that check-in time is 2 pm.  I try to muster a charming smile and say to the receptionist "But it is 8:15 now, what am I supposed to do for those 6 hours? Could you maybe clean my room first?"  It seems she has pity with the weary traveller because she agrees to put my room (a smoking room ;-) at the top of the list for cleaning and promises it for 10 am.   I bridge some time with the breakfast buffet (100,000 VND) and a short beach walk and am delighted when she tells me at 9:30 that my room is ready.

When I receive my room key I am at once relived that I am in an apparently entirely non-superstitious country and have to grin at the reaction of a Westerner or Chinese person when receiving this key.  Hotels in Hong Kong omit the following floors: 4, 13, 14, 24... and even in Korea a 4th floor is a NO-NO.  I am to reside in room 413 on the 4th floor and I'm not the least worried about it ;-)

A nice big room and a bathtub that looks through the room to the outside

Nice room and even the bathtub (that's NOT a mirror) has a view of the outside ;-)

Google Maps indicates a 'grocery store' at a distance of 1.5 km from my hotel.The route allows  me to walk  along the beach for half the distance, which is always a bonus;-) 

The beauty of sandals. They're easily taken off and stored in a backpack.  Think these are pale feet?

 Think again ;-)

 I run into the amazing Vietnamese friendliness again. I take a picture of a fishing boat entering the river and a second later turn back in response to a shout from the boat and see 2 people waving at me.
One of the two at the bow ends up waving

This is a working city; not everything has been cleaned up for tourists. I follow the water's edge

The 'Grocery Store' turns out your usual Viet tiny store selling only 30 different articles. This one doesn't even have noodle soup.  Some smart English-speaker put this 'establishment' on Google Maps as a proper store. Smart.  But what they have is is Dalat Red  Wine with a price sticker of 69,000 VND (CAD $4). At first the 20 year old woman doesn't want to sell it to me with the reason that it is expired.   When I tell her that red wine rarely expires, she tries to charge me 80,000 instead of the sticker price.  We settle on 70,000. Her father walks by, lifts my bottle, and says "VERY special" to which I can only reply "I am VERY special TOO, so it's a good match".

the walkway is even more rickety than it looks !

wishful thinking but appealing to size queens ;-)

Back at the hotel I feel like I need a nap (It is 2 pm by now) and am fast asleep as soon as I pull the blanket over me.

Ca Phe after my nap serves to wake up my brain again and an almost hour-long bare-footed beach walk serves to get the chill out of my bones, even though the 18 degrees are accompanied by a strong chilly wind.  It has become a habit of mine to bring home sea shells for my grandmother from my trips and the brisk weather has ensured that I am one of a very few people at the beach and find the fresh harvest of freshly washed-up shells un-looted.
I ate the content of one of these  in Da Nang in December

On the way back, I see what looks like a supermarket but upon closer inspection is a store for a strange mix of goods.  

One thing that catches my eyes (for 68,000 VND) is a large jar of something dried, some kind of jerky.  There are other dried goods close by and one of the other ones has a fish symbol on the packaging.  
When I ask whether my chosen one is FISH (I point at the fish symbol of the other container), the young sales clerk vigorously shakes her head and says EEL.  I always considered eel to be a part of the fish family (could they be tiny tiny whales?), so I make sure that we are talking on the same wavelength.  I indicate something 2 feet long and maybe 2 inches thick and she nods.   Eel it is and I buy it.  Apparently it is ready to eat out of the jar as is later confirmed by my hotel receptionist, so I don't even have to throw it in noodle soup, as I originally intended.

Not only in Vancouver

Rice drying on the sidewalk
Half an hour later I am nibbling spicy dried eel accompanied by a glass of chilled Dalat red wine. OMG. A divine combination ;-)  In addition: I paid less than 10$ CAD for both of them and if I finished them both I'd be drunk like a skunk with eels wiggling out of my bodily orifices.  So I'll have to stop eventually, which will be a very difficult feat to accomplish ;-)

George used to love spicy-sweet eel from China so much I could never keep any in the cupboard; he ate it like potato chips!

On the way to the 'grocery store' earlier I had noticed a 'Seafood' restaurant along the way but this city is SOO NOT explored by western tourists that neither TripAdvisor nor Google had any ratings of the place.  Time to generate a rating myself ;-)

 I see the bridge from far away. Not only is it lit up like a rainbow, but the colour pattern moves from right to left at lightning speed. Quite a spectacle

I arrive at Nam Sang restaurant and It's not quite as big an adventure as the places in Da Nang.  They have an English menu and the waiter speaks English ;-(  The second thing I notice is the prices. A can of Heineken or local beer for under 1$.  LIKE!

I order steamed peanuts (50 cents for a whole plate, but they are neither wet nor hot), sun-dried squid (they ran out of that so I am getting steamed squid), seafood salad (the most expensive item on my list at $6.50 so I might get a surprise), and steamed rice.

The squid arrives.  Actually it's 5 whole squid with an outrageously  spicy and good dipping sauce. My tongue is burning with the flavour and it's hart to stop eating.

The seafood salad arrives. It's HUGE.

  I realize that I've ordered WAY TOO MUCH. 

My leftovers are enough to feed a family for dinner ;-(

 Not a nice thing to do in a country with very few fat people, i.e. where food is still considered a necessity, and not something of an amusement in its variety.  When I apologize to the owner for not eating everything because I ordered too much, he only says "Things different in Vietnam" Truer words have never been spoken, and I only reply "I try to learn quickly".

Not my  pic

I get up at 5 am after 9 hours of sleep, infuse myself with some Viet instant coffee, and to my amazement hear trumpets playing at 5:30 am.   It's the army base next door and they're sounding reveille. 

I skip the morning beach dash because it  looks gray outside and the weather forecast says that it's drizzling. In addition, even a warm (not quite hot) bath was not enough for my toes to recover from the tiled floor of my unheated room.  It is 16 degrees outside and not much warmer inside. Cambodian temperatures are more and more alluring!

Today breakfast is included in the room rate, so I can't really complain about it, but it takes a bit of getting used to. OMG, do I detect a whiny touch of home-sickness for Denny's breakfast there? Banish the thought!  I've come here to expand my comfort zone and to experience new things. Is old age finally rearing its bald and ugly head?  Must watch that !

After that reality check I dive into the unknown with renewed vigor and quickly find out that the banana (?) leaves that some items are cooked in are not really edible. There, that is the good old explorer spirit ;-)

It's actually a different one from the one I saw yesterday
When I see footprints I left earlier.I have to smile because most of them are gone.  Your kids will remember you for a little while, good friends will remember you for a long while, but the rest of the world will just forget about you once the first big wave hits.
I have to laugh when I get back to the hotel and take the elevator. This size elevator would be filled to maximum size-wise by 4 people in Las Vegas!  Here it holds 17 passengers, which works out to a maximum weight of 147 pounds per passenger!

There is a large and famous cave system near Dong Hoi. I've seen enough caves but one of them seems only accessible by boat along a river which tickles my curiosity. When I enquire at the hotel reception I find out that they offer tours there but that those tours visit another cave after that and leave at 8 am and don't return until 5 pm.   Too bad. A half day tour to the river-boating cave would have been nice, but spending all day in buses and caves doesn't fit my schedule ;-(
NOT my pic
 I consider walking the 5 km to the train station (and the 5 km back) to buy my train ticket for tomorrow but when I learn at the reception desk that renting a scooter will cost me 150,000 VND for the whole day, I quickly decide to go with that option, after all this will allow me to explore the city and its beaches as well.

Just like in Da Nang in December, I suspect that the bike belongs to one of the hotel employees, the PINK helmet is a very strong indicator ;-)
This bike, however, is only semi-automatic.  You shift gears with the left foot but the got rid of the clutch. They also got rid of one of the brake levers; use the right food for that.  It has been 20 years  since I last shifted gears my foot on a motorbike, so I initially head along the beach road AWAY from the city and traffic to get the feel again. Vietnamese traffic is INSANE enough to occupy the whole  brain, leaving no room for thoughts about how to shift. Good thinking that was too because it takes less than 5 minutes for a Vietnamese woman on a scooter to shoot out of a side street right into my way.

Thanks to Google Maps on my phone, I do find the train station soon after I have found a GAS STATION after staring for about 10 minutes in PANIC at the gas needle hovering VERY close to EMPTY.     
NOT my gas gauge and NOT my pic
 My initial fears of not getting a seat this close to Tet evaporate right after getting a SOFT SLEEPER BED for half the price of what (Don't go there, they're scammers) charges for a SEAT for the same trip.

I head back to the hotel for some HOT noodle soup (with bits of spicy eel added  ;-) and a change of clothes because the day is definitely too COLD to ride a bike in SHORTS.

Hopping on the bike again, I decide to explore the coast in the Northern direction.

The road keeps on rising so at some point I think the cold has affected my vision when I see dunes rising above me on the side of the road AWAY from the ocean.  This surely can't be.
But it is.

The way the sand forms a cliff which indicates the direction that the dunes are travelling into. And the STRANGE thing is that they are travelling TOWARDS the ocean, which is also confirmed by the direction that the wind seems to be blowing in.  Where does it all come from then?

 At first I am confused.
 I can't make sense of it all.

my bike is waaay down there ;-)
Then I just enjoy running around the desert. It's like in White Sands Testing Ground down in New Mexico but so many fewer people !

So far I wasn't quite sure where all this sand could have originated (maybe something like a gravel pit), but then I see this.

Oh darned. It's ocean sand travelling TOWARDS the ocean. I hope there is an easier solution, otherwise I would be stuck with the explanation that this sand originated in Thailand and has travelled across Indochina ;-)

By now very light drizzle has started. I check the map on my phone and decide to continue to the mouth of the river a bit further north.

why not?  It's not the only one I see. Later I get to the site where the trees come from and one kid hits me on the helmet with the tree's crown. Always wear your helmet, you never know what;s going to hit you ;-)

fresh rice
After wiggling the scooter through a market being held right in the main street of the village (I shouldn't complain, the guys with the trees made it through there as well), I follow the coastal road. Ok. Road NOT, more of a path paved in some areas.

I can't get enough of these colours ;-)

blistery weather (but it is 17 degrees C)

a river runs through it

Stopping at a thinly populated local market on the way back I am again overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people. And NO to all you western thinkers, this friendliness is displayed before and even more after you buy from them or don't buy from them.  All the children showing off their Hello, a man wanting to shake my hand when I was buying a noodle soup at a woman's stand. Double the amount of mandarins costing less than half what a woman in Hanoi wanted for them. Giggles and smiles when I answer their Hello with Xin Chao, smiles and exchanging astonished thoughts in Vietnamese containing the words 'viet nam', most likely indicating their astonishment that a foreigner actually knows a few words of Vietnamese, at least I like to flatter myself thus ;-)

Back in the hotel (temperatures inside are only slightly higher than outside) I greedily inhale a HOT noodle soup with the remaining dried eel (Yes, I finished it :-) and have a nap.

Getting out of bed is hard, not only because waking up is difficult, but because it is COLD. When I petition the receptionist for a space heater, I am informed that the hotel doesn't have any because the weather is unseasonably cold. Upon my request to have one ready next year at this time for my return (just in case it is unseasonably cold again), she promises to be prepared
The cold wind and the 16 C weather is a bit of a nuisance. When I check the weather forecast it promises 30 C for next week here. Next time I'm flying to Sai Gon from Seoul. I should have done that this time already !

I head back to Nam Sang for dinner and confirm my suspicion that the various fires smoldering all over the country side of Vietnam are indeed garbage being burned ;-(

After yesterday's over-ordering I am careful today, I only order a beer and since he told me they just received fresh clams, I order clams sauteed with pineapple. 
Doesn't sound like much but it is a heavenly combo of clam, pineapple, pepper, and garlic. I actually consider ordering the same dish again when I'm done but come to my senses in time and only  drain the last drop of broth from the bowl  This is one of those dishes I would eat at least once every day if I stayed here any longer ;-)
no leftovers today !

The alarm clock is set for 5 am but I'm awake at 4:30 am. Passing out at 8 pm and quite a bit of excitement for the day to come do that to me ;-)

Breakfast is a bit slower to open than the advertised 6 am so I walk towards the beach for a few minutes. 

That is I TRY to walk, because I'm stepping out into a STORM, that causes my walking to turn into a stumbling. WOW. Are the Philippines being hit by a typhoon again? I'm just glad I don't have to ride a scooter today. Or fly in a plane !!!!

Taking a 5.5 hour train ride should be safer, even in the wind, and with any luck I'll sleep through a large portion of that ;-)  

Last time I passed the 3 hour ride from Hue to Da Nang in a packed seat-only car and the 3 hours stretched long. This time I have a bed in a soft sleeper, so we'll see how much of the journey I will be conscious for.

The taxi arrives at 7 am sharp (actually since I dealt with 2 different receptionists when ordering the taxi, I suspect the 2nd taxi arriving right behind the 1st one is intended for me as well), and after leaving the hotel with me the driver stops around the corner to deliver something to his family (no detour) and after the delivery closes the windows of his car. I was wondering why he was driving through a storm with open windows; must have been something smelly. 

When I am incautious enough to answer Canada/Germany to his question where I am from, he starts talking to me in German. Good German no less!  Strange country!

The usual vending stalls right next to the train track inside the station

While I’m sitting in the waiting room anticipating the train that is 15 minutes late, my phone rings.  It is my bicycle guy from Evolution Bikes in North Vancouver.  Seems when my chain ripped about a month ago, it did not only kill the chain and the rear derailleur, but also FUBARed the 3-speed hub-internal gear shift inside the rear wheel.    Bloody German Over-Engineering. Will these guys never learn?  On a normal bike a broken chain will cost you $50.  Because Haibike wanted to show off with some fancy clever engineering feat, MY broken chain will cause my repair bill to be at least $500.   Why can’t German companies just build products that work instead of having to lose themselves on errands of grandeur?  Honda can do it, why not Bosch?
The visuals remind me of movies where people board trains in tropical Africa

Despite the less than appealing news on the bicycle front, I spend the first 3 hours of the train ride sleeping. I got a ticket to a 4-berth soft sleeper and I have a top bunk again, but the climb to the top is much less HARD than in the 6-berth hard sleeper.

What is that then?  On one of my standing in the hall and staring out the window sessions, I see a western couple riding bicycles on the main road staring right back at the train. Bicycle Tourists !!!!!

What  else? Oh right.  One can SMOKE in Vietnamese trains, at each of the ends of each car.  And just to hammer this fact home, here are A LOT of SMOKING pictures (Yes, I've had a couple of Vang Do when writing this ;-)

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