Saturday, 5 November 2016

Rattle and snore (Dong Hoi by overnight train)

Yes, Vietnam can be a horribly bureaucratic place. For example, a photocopy of your passport has to be made just to buy cigarettes at the airport.
The Ha Noi train tracks cut through regular people's houses 
My favourite train in the world !

And NO, as a foreigner you can NOT buy a train ticket without your passport at the train station. Because on your ticket will be printed your full name and you passport number.  At least that's the theory.  
I've noticed various variations on what goes into those fields before and this time the "Name" on my train ticket is my first name and the "Passport" field on my train ticket is occupied by my Year of Birth. 

But it should get me on the train.

I leave my hotel at 9 pm. Yes, it's pitch dark out there but the hotel is located just around the corner from Ga Ha Noi, so I have no problem finding it (NOT the first time I do this walk ;-) I need to buy some food and drink for my 10 hours on the train, ideally some instant noodle soup cups. The trains are equipped with hot water dispensers that are used by people to prepare those noodle cups !

As one gets closer to the train station, EVERY store seems to be open. I buy 2 noodle soup cups, cookies, water, and a bottle of Dalat vang do (red wine) from a mom&pop shop. The noodle soup takes some sign language but indicating a bowl and then imitating eating with chop-sticks does the trick.

I just read in the internet that Ga Ha Noi and Ga Sai Gon also sell tickets for journeys starting at other stations, so i buy my ticket for Sunday's travel right here. One less thing to think about !

Passengers are already allowed on the train at 9 pm, a change from last time where they would only let people in half an hour before departure.  

I find my compartment and berth and with only minor difficulty manage to climb into the middle berth.  

reclining pictures how of double chins  !
Thank God that I don't have the top berth like last time I traveled in a 6-berth compartment !

Just before the train leaves the compartment fills up.  irony has it that the top bunks (the ones that are darned hard to get into) are occupied by older Vietnamese men in business attire. This 50 year old Westerner had trouble getting up there, but these probably 60-65 year old guys do just fine, without the fall into the abyss that I performed on my first try in February!  The bottom berths are occupied by a young couple with a baby and a maybe 4 year old.  As soon as I see them, I think of Western children and am convinced that I'll be kept up all night.  BUT:  I don't hear a single screaming episode all night.

Time to sleep !  

8 hours of sleep it will be.  I wake up twice to visit the loo and to have a cigarette but fall asleep instantly again as soon as I hit my cot/cod.  That rhythmic click-click-clack of the tracks is better than any sleeping pill !

At 6 am I decide that this was enough sleep and take a cup of noodle soup to the hot water dispenser. 20 minutes later I see a lot of other passengers doing the same. Yes, by now I know the tricks of the track in these parts ;-)

By 6:45 the sun is burning holes through the mist that enshrouded the landscape at dawn and I'm staring out the window with wide-open eyes while I type this.

reflection, NOT a UFO !

The train slows down and at the muddy bank of a wide river I see WATER BUFFALO with chicken swarming around them.

The train keeps crawling through rough tunnels along the river and whenever there is an opening in the rock-cover I get a glimpse of the river.

There is some track maintenance happening and the train reaches Ga Dong Hoi 25 minutes late.   There are no motorbike taxis  (a la Anh My in Da Nang) here, so I take a regular car taxi.  The written address of my destination doesn't seem to be enough. Just outside the railway station, the taxi driver honks at a pedestrian and says something him in Viet, whereupon the pedestrian smiles at me and says "He wants to know where you want to go". LOL.  It's ALWAYS good to have your destination or even the best route there plotted out on Google Maps. I did just that on my laptop,which I dig out and show the driver. With a big smile he gives me a thumbs-up and says "O.K.".   Along the way there are more signs that THAT what I am running away from is making efforts to take hold in Vietnam. My most-hated car is driving in front of me. What do you get if you cross a Bimbo-Van with a sports car?  Right, a Porsche Cayenne!

 I get to Red Peppers Guest House at 8:30 a.m.   I know I am early and I don't expect the room right away.  The young British guy at reception tells me that the room is still occupied so I agree to wait until it's ready.  10 minutes later I get an e-mail from the Guest house informing me that they double booked and the room will not be available for me. WTF?   But to his credit, he walks over a few minutes later and explains that he just spent two days in hospital and couldn't manage his bookings (The doctors interpreted the leg pain as arthritis, which sucks for someone in his early 30s).  He shows me how to cancel the booking for free and I'm homeless in Dong Hoi at 8:45.

No worries, this is Vietnam.  I get onto and within 5 minutes have picked the cherry from the 50 available hotels. A room with balcony and river view for CAD $22, just 400 meters from where I'm sitting. Life is good sometimes ;-)

lovey hotel, LOVELY people
At the new place I find out that the room will be ready within the hour  (it ends up being two hours) and I use the time to walk along the river to something I knew was there but I had no idea what it stood for until a few weeks ago.

I walk back to the hotel and sit down outside to have some breakfast.   And it happens AGAIN.  I try to order white wine, the waitress goes to check whether they have any, and comes back and proudly exclaims "We have Vodka".  I politely decline the offer.

Are you sure there are enough EGGS in this breakfast ????
The curly things are Vietnamese 'hot dogs'.   Must be a special breed to have such a short curly tail !

I'm looking forward with trepidation to dinner time.  One of the reasons for stopping in Dong Hoi on my way south was to have a chance to eat that fabulous clam dish again.  There is a picture of it in a post a week or two ago.  Well. I'm here in Dong Hoi.  Now if I could just remember where that restaurant was where I ate those clams or what it looked like or what it was called .....

The best laid plans of mice and men ....

In desperation, I go to TripAdvisor and tell it to search for Seafood in Dong Hoi. The query still yields too many results for my taste.  But HANG ON .... WHAT is THAT ???
I'm staring at MY picture of MY clam dish that I ate here in February.  And it is part of MY review of Nam Sang Seafood Restaurant !    pheew!   That's one way of finding a restaurant, LOL.

I notice that I'm sweating.  How warm is it? I check the weather forecast and it is 28 degrees Celsius and sunny at 10 am. WOW.  But HEAVY RAIN will start at 2 am.  And I've experienced HEAVY Vietnamese rain once in Da Nang. I was sitting in an open beach hotel lobby. It wasn't sound or wet touch that gave the presence of away. I looked up from my laptop because it had gotten dark only to realize that the horizon, the ocean, and even part of the beach were no longer visible.

Time to make use of the offer of a free rental bicycle.  There is somewhere I HAVE to go and it has to do with Eel-Jerky ;-)

I haven't had this in 9 months !

This beach definitely has seen better days!   The amount of flotsam and jetsam is overwhelming.
At dinner time I am informed by the hotel owner that the town is still waiting for the second flood to perform the clean-up.  Monsoon season is not over yet here, so why clean the beach twice?
I can't east THAT much !

Is that a BRA ?

Waste-Penguin ate too much !

The staff at Geminai is unbelievable.  If you're sitting at a table with your laptop, they first ask whether you're working. If the answer is NO, you instantly have company at your table.   Every time I sit down, one of them sits with me and starts chatting.  Their English is excellent and they're great fun to talk to.

When I leave for another trip on the monkey bike (If the saddle was any lower I wouldn't be able to move my legs at all), an older Western man from the tables outside the lobby calls over "That thing needs a motor ".

As soon as I'm over the bridge and enter the neighbourhood mostly occupied by fishers (Groups of men are sitting in courtyards chatting and mending nets), I am reminded that I am back in HELLO-Land. Anyone from kids playing in the streets to women hanging up their laundry can't help but show off their English and greet the foreigner.  As opposed to my trip in February, I now answer with Hello, Xin Chao, instead of just the former.
Some official informs me that the road I had intended to a beach is closed by some strange waving of his arms.  But he does it with a big smile.

As I find out when I return from this bike trip, the motor-commenter is from Alaska, and in 1965 (this is when Dong Hoi was leveled) was stationed on a ship of the US Navy off the shores of Vietnam. 

The 69-year old  is a quite smart but also a misogynistic pig  (I won't reprint here the 'joke' he recounts his deceased uncle telling him all his life; you've probably heard variations anyway). Like many Americans (Hey, let's start or continue a stereotype), he loves to hear himself talk and aggressively dominates the conversation  (Write a blog if you like to hear or see your words; no danger of anyone interrupting you there ;-), and doesn't respond well to gentle hints to change the subject of conversation. 

Unfortunately (or fortunately), he also mentions that my plans of eating clams for dinner might not be such a good idea.  Toxic chemicals released by a Taiwan-owned steel factory polluted the waters and shut down fishing along Vietnam's central coast in April.   In a country that at its narrowest point is only 40 kms wide and has a huge percentage of its population dependent on fishing for income AND food, this is a BIG DEAL. And it also means that I won't be having clams today.

In a clandestine move to get away from the verbal onslaught from my conversation companion, I head to my room 'for a nap'.  After sleeping through the alarm that was set 75 minutes after my shut-eye, I manage to crawl down to the hotel restaurant at 8 pm. 

With fish being off the menu while in Vietnam, I decide to try the Sweet and Sour Chicken Leg with Egg.  EGG?   The dish comes with rice and vegetables but no egg.  

Fortunately that was another translation mistake, because the dish is absolutely great with the leg cooked to perfection.  How much do I have to pay for such a feast?  55,000 VND, that's less than US $2.50 !

They even serve ruou vang do by the glass (which is bound to be more expensive than the meal).  The whole atmosphere (the staff, the other guests (Alaska has gone to his room and not returned ;-), and sitting outside at 9 pm in the balmy 26 degrees Celsius air) makes me order dessert.  How about a Fruit Crepe? (I can almost hear crepe-loving Zulema going 'Yes, oh Yes please!').

I can understand why the chicken took so long (No, this one didn't get plucked, I think, but it was a thick leg that needed time to cook); but a fruit crepe shouldn't really take that long.  I ask and get told that the server's MOTHER is working very carefully mixing all the ingredients. When I hear the word coconut milk, I know I'm in for a treat.   I saw Anthony Bourdain eat one of those Vietnamese variations on the French Crepe.

Mother arrives with the crepes. 

Made by Mom.  The Mother of all Crepes !

They are NOT the crunchy ones that Bourdain ate but they are filled with just the right amount of bananas, mango, and dragon-fruit, with honey in the center dish for dipping.  Mother insists I tell her what I think and I'm not lying when I tell her that these are better than crepes I have eaten in France (She does the swooning 'OOOH, tell me MORE in that seductive voice of yours' move) 

Tell me more sweet things !
It takes me half an hour to finish the plate because she then proceeds to tell me the origin of the hotel I'm staying in and its restaurant. The hotel only opened 9 months ago (she had never worked in the hotel business and is renting the building from the 84 old operators of the previous hotel and a large number of her staff consists of her own family and her children are the ones that came up with the hotel's decor).  She tells me about the toxic spill from the steel factory (the beach was covered in dead fish) and the usual November floods (Yes, it was 28 degrees and sunny today, but it is still Monsoon season in these parts ;-). 
 During some of the bits where I heap praise on her for the food and the hotel 
(more of the 'OOOH, PlEaSe NEVER stop telling me compliments' moves from my hostess), I catch myself sounding just like a certain French-American in his food and travel TV show.  Oops, LOL, where is MY camera crew ????  I smoke. I eat. I travel. MY wit has a cutting edge. I write.   So WHERE is my camera crew? 
The ONLY reason that could explain the lack of a crew is the fact that I refuse to wear shades!

The next surprise comes when I ask for the bill. Not only does the son bring a glass of the local rum that he already had announced (threatened) at noon, but the total amount of the bill for 2 glasses of wine, the excellent chicken dinner, and the fabulous crepes comes to just below US $9.   NO, there is no zero missing. Even in Hanoi this could easily have cost me twice as much because there up they have figured out that tourists happily overpay for wine.

I realize that it is 10:45 pm when I get to my room. Bye bye jet lag?

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