Brendon Kearns

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Đà Nẵng, Hội An and Nha Trang

We took the next stretch of the Reunification Express from Đồng Hới to Đà Nẵng. We're getting more comfortable with doing our own dirty work, so on boarding we motioned to the guy chilling in our seats to hop up.


Đồng Hới station early in the morning

This was by far the prettiest train trip we've done in Vietnam. The track goes along the coast so you get a passing view of fishing villages and deserted beaches edged with trees. You can buy pretty decent food on the journey too – we picked up some tofu in tomato sauce and a giant disc of addictive local peanut brittle stuck on top of a rice cracker (called kẹo đậu phộng), put in our earphones to drown out the pop music on the overhead TV, played peek-a-boo with the little boy in the seat in front of us, and enjoyed the ride.

Đà Nẵng is Vietnam's third-largest city and, like most of Vietnam, is under major development – skyscrapers and apartments are flying up all over town, and the coastline is filling with resorts. It's also the gateway to Hội An, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Vietnam's tailoring Mecca.

Enjoy Hội An

We'd heard a lot about Hội An's chilled out riverside atmosphere and its famous lanterns so we headed straight there instead of hanging around Đà Nẵng, despite our taxi driver's attempts to take us to a stone carving village, a pagoda, his sister's jewellery shop and the ruins at Mỹ Sơn before dropping us on the hotel strip. We walked around looking for a decent room. In front of a skeevy looking backpackers' hostel we got talking to two Australian guys who were eating tiny snails out of a bag using a long skewer (this is a common pastime in Hội An). 'How are the rooms?' we asked. 'Well, the door closes…', one guy replied. At the next guesthouse the only available room was what looked like a converted birdhouse on the roof.

Eventually we settled at Hội Phổ Hotel and headed out to get acquainted with the town. We immediately loved the pedestrian-only areas and the well-preserved old buildings. We checked out the riverside, fought off offers for boat cruises, grabbed a cheap dinner then stopped in for a terrible cocktail before hitting the sack.

Our festive hotel room at Hội Phổ Hotel

Stepping outside the next morning the famed old world charm was overridden by the stronger sense of desperation coming from all the people who had moved to Hội An to try to get ahead. Shouts followed us down the streets – 'Hello! Where you from? Where you going? You want a suit? Shirt? Dress? Come into my shop please!' Apparently the number of tailors in town has increased from around 140 in the early 2000s to over 600 these days, and there are not enough tourists to go round. There's an almost mafia vibe to it all, with the hotels trying to get you to use a particular tailor so they can collect a commission, and the tailors interrogating you about who sent you and what tailors other hotels had recommended – even the cab drivers are in on it.

The night prior we had agreed to a $15 room after having no luck finding something decent in the $10 range. We offered to stay for four nights if they were willing to drop the price down to $12 as the place appeared to have some empty rooms – they were cool with us staying one night but when it became clear to that we wouldn't be going to Kimmy, their recommended tailor, or booking any package tours, their friendliness cooled and the lady behind the desk picked up the telephone, pretended to speak to someone, and informed us they were fully booked the following night.

We packed up our stuff and started doing the rounds again – we ended up down the road at Hop Yen Hotel. They were out of $10 doubles but we snagged the classiest room in the building for $13. Check out the totally rad feature tile.

With a few sprays of DEET around the doorframe it felt just like home

If that seems like a lot of effort for what ended up only being a few bucks difference, it was. Since we're traveling long term, we try to stick to our guns on keeping accommodation costs consistently low. This is especially true when we're unsure of how long we'll be in an area – switching guesthouses frequently can knock out a couple of mornings but a few dollars difference a night multiplied can quickly add up to what could have been another night's stay. In this case, we only stayed in Hội An for five nights so it would have made more sense to stick with a $15 room as we lost a morning waiting around until check out time to pop our heads into different places to see what was available and ended up only saving 6 bucks in the long run. It's always a fine line when it comes to time versus money.

We spent the rest of the day checking out a few historical sites – Hội An has a number of museums, assembly halls, temples and preserved homes of notable local figures, and for 120,000đ you can visit five of them. Our favourites were the Cantonese Assembly Hall with its fountains, gardens and shrines, and the Japanese Covered Bridge, which was built in the 16th or 17th century when there was a big Japanese settlement in town.

Cantonese Assembly Hall gate

It was just after Tết when we visited so the altars in the Cantonese Assembly Hall were laden with incense sticks, different food offerings and flowers. Big coils of incense hung from the ceiling.

Dog god by the entrance to the Japanese Covered Bridge – the other entrance contained a similar statue of a monkey god. In the center of the bridge is a small altar to Bắc Đế Trấn Võ, the Vietnamese god of weather, who we thought might be the same as the Chinese Taoist deity Xuan Wu.

Detail from the Covered Bridge

The real highlight for us, though, was the food. Vietnamese food is a lot more regional than we knew before arriving. Every region – north, south and central – has its own cooking styles and some cities also have their own particular specialties. The food in Hội An was a lot lighter and more varied than the meat-and-rice/noodle combinations up north. Being beside the river means lots of fresh seafood (Katie's been on a steady downward slide from vegetarian to a vegaquarian who occasionally gives up and eats meat) and one of the major central and southern Vietnamese dishes is bánh xèo (crispy pancake), a favourite Vietnamese food from home. As well as the ubiquitous phơ, there were a bunch of different noodle soups to try – cau lầo (vege version included crispy tofu, vegetables, fat udon-style noodles, a little broth, bean sprouts and fresh lettuce and herbs, with croutons on top), bún bò Huế (spicy Huế-style noodle soup) and mì quảng seemed to be the most popular. White rose dumplings – steamed dumplings stuffed with prawns – and duck spring rolls were two other notable local dishes.

One of many crispy pancakes consumed

Mì quảng (rice flour noodles in pork and shrimp broth, topped with pork and shrimp, quail eggs and herbs) from Streets Restaurant

20,000đ (~$1) vegetable phơ from Restaurant Như Ngọc, the food stand across from our hotel

Tofu, prawn and lotus flower salad from Fusion Cafe

There are a number of shops and eateries in Hội An that focus on providing work and training opportunities for people who have disabilities or are otherwise disadvantaged, which was really cool to see. We liked Streets Restaurant and the Reaching Out Tea House, a silent tea house run by people with hearing impairments. You fill out a paper form with your order and you can talk to the staff using little wooden blocks that say 'Thank you', 'Water' etc. or by writing them notes.

The teas, coffees and biscuits on offer were amazing, as was the tableware, which is all designed and produced by artisans with disabilities. And after a few days of being shouted at by tailors the silence was very welcome!

We did end up getting some clothes made by a tailor called Miss Forget-Me-Not. We brought some favourite clothing items along and she and her staff copied the patterns for us and ran up two pairs of linen pants, two blouses, a shirt and a skirt in the space of 24 hours.

After a few days we were keen to get to the beach, so we headed out of town. In hindsight, we probably should have stayed in Đà Nẵng and just done a day or two in Hội An – driving back to Đà Nẵng station the city seemed a bit more chilled out, the beach looked beautiful and more suited to swimming than the choppy beaches in Hội An, and there wasn't a tailor or lantern in sight.

Waiting room at Đà Nẵng Station

Our next destination was Nha Trang, a beachside town about halfway down the Vietnamese coast. It's a fun place to chill out and re-up on Vitamin D. There's not a huge amount to do except drink coffee, relax on the beach, hit the bars and enjoy a big dinner.


Designer dogs

Nha Trang is by far the most touristy and developed place we've been in South-East Asia, which has its pluses and its minuses. Everything is very easy – all the locals speak English, the streets are relatively clean, there's restaurants galore, a KFC, outlet stores (with western sizes), a massive shopping mall with a cinema and rooftop bar, and all the seedy massage parlours your leathery old heart desires. They even have a brewhouse that produces its own craft beers. But it also makes the place very generic – you end up feeling like you could be anywhere in the world, from the Gold Coast to Kuta to Cancun. The legions of glammed up Russian tourists only added to the strange sense of place – there are three direct flights from Moscow to Nha Trang each day and all the shops have signage and menus in Russian as well as English.

We got to talking with a local at a coffee shop who was afraid that the mass influx from Moscow was ramping up property development while driving up prices in what he feared was a bubble that could pop as soon as it becomes too expensive for the average Russian tourist.

Moloko for sale at the local supermarket

Despite how touristy it is, everything is still cheap. We stayed at Saint Paul Hotel and had a spotlessly clean air-conditioned room with a window, cable TV (we enjoyed watching The Matrix with Vietnamese subtitles – 'Tam biệt, Anh Anderson!') and a fridge, 3 mins from the beach, for between $12 and $14 a night. You can get top-notch breakfast for two at Le Petit Bistro for 110,000đ (~$5.40), and Sydney-standard lattes at Cuppa for 40,000đ (~$2).

Lying on the beach costs nothing, unless you decide you want the 'VIP' treatment, which gets you a sun bed, fluffy towel and access to a shower and pool for 100,000đ (~$5) a day. We never went for that deal, but occasionally rented out a couple chairs with an umbrella for 40,000đ (~$2).

Nha Trang beach

Entrance to Long Sơn Pagoda

To break up the hedonism we caught a green cab out to Long Sơn Pagoda. Unlike at other religious sites we've visited, we didn't see any monks around except the one who was running the attached restaurant. We didn't see any locals stopping by to pay respects either and it had the vibe of a once active temple turned tourist trap.

It was more intense than expected as children, the elderly and people with disabilities begged along the stairways, others installed themselves at the entrances to each section and asked for payment to come in (there is no entry fee), a guy with neck tatts gave us incense sticks (and then demanded 50,000đ) and we had to waive off young people who tried to give us uninvited 'tours' (i.e follow you while talking and then ask for money) – the only sacrilege appeared to be putting money into the official donation box.

Buddha at Long Sơn

Next we drove to Po Nagar Cham Towers, the ruins of a Hindu temple built by the Cham who once ruled part of southern Vietnam. Po Nagar is run like a well-oiled machine in comparison – entry is ticketed, the grounds are manicured and professional guides can be hired for an extra 22,000đ. Proper dress is enforced – those who wanted to take glamour shots in their short shorts and strappy tops were dismayed when staff issued them with dour grey monk robes to cover themselves. The towers were cool to check out, but the ruins at Ayutthaya and Sukhothai in Thailand are pretty hard to beat.

Cham towers

Nha Trang as seen from Po Nagar

The food in the touristy area of Nha Trang wasn't exactly exotic but there were plenty of good cheap restaurants serving Vietnamese, Indian, Italian, Russian, Spanish and standard western pub food. Our favourite places were Yen, Lanterns and Ganesh Indian Restaurant (the only place we've found in Southeast Asia that actually put paneer in their palak paneer).

Best chicken phơ from Yen

Seafood paella, glass of sangria and salad for 6 bucks from La Mancha

After a week and some change it felt like time to move on. We went down to the Phuong Trang bus station and bought a 145,000đ ticket to Dà Lật. Back in Hanoi we'd had a few beers with a Canadian woman who had loved Luang Prabang as much as we did – when we asked her what her favourite Vietnamese city was, she answered without hesitating: 'Dà Lật!' Sold.

 

Ninh Bình and Đồng Hới

We wanted to get out of the city and see more of rural Vietnam so we made a side-trip from Hanoi to Ninh Bình with a guide, Mu, and a local driver, Vuong, to show us around. We drove two hours south and stopped in Vân Long (one of the many places in Vietnam that is referred to as 'Halong Bay on land') where we took a boat trip around some limestone cliffs and through a small cave. We could hear birds and gibbons in the forest, but they stayed hidden as it was a cool drizzly day.

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Mu brought us out here to show us a site we might not otherwise see – Vân Long is less popular with westerners (who mostly do trips out to Tam Cốc) but quite popular with Chinese tourists, who come to visit the nearby temple.

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Looking up from inside a limestone cave

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Rower taking us around

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We stopped at a local restaurant for a massive lunch. We read later that in Vietnam you should always leave some food on your plate to show that you are full and satisfied with what your host has provided – perhaps ordering a few extra dishes is the only way to ensure this when eating with westerners! Mu and Vuong joked about serving us dog – which they claimed tasted like goat – another regional delicacy. We passed numerous places advertising thịt chó and thịt mèo (“meat meow”) on the drive.

 

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Next we walked through Thung Nắng village, which is located among some very impressive rock formations. We saw a guy with a cage on his bike actually buying a dog for a wedding banquet, which gave a new meaning to the phrase “Going to see a man about a dog”… Being an animal-lover in Vietnam is hard.

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Our next stop was Yên Mô village, where we'd be staying for the night. Mu took us to see a woman making rice noodles – she soaks the grains of rice, runs them through a hand-operated machine and then drains them overnight to sell at market early the next morning. She makes about 100,000 dong per day, which adds up to less than $2000 a year. But that's a pretty decent income in this village, where people grow nearly all their own food.

After that we went to the local market. Brendon had to keep his head low to stay under the tarp that covered the walkways. We received a lot of stares from locals, along with some obligatory “Hello!”s. One man started shouting at us and Mu translated it as “I would like to say a lot of things to you, but I don't know how!”

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The next day Mu took us for a walk through the fields of peanuts, rice, cabbage, lettuce and morning glory.

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Workers were out tending their crops in the rain among the graves of their ancestors.

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We visited Bích Động Pagoda, which is built on a cliff filled with caverns and caves used as hideouts during wars with China and America. We saw some deep chasms covered in nets into which people had thrown money. We asked Mu what it meant and she explained that during the wars there were so many casualties that the dead could not all be buried. Bodies had to be thrown down into the chasms, and people leave money so that these dead soldiers can have a good life in the spirit world.

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We stopped in for tea with an older man who works at the pagoda as a guide and musician. He offered Brendon a hit of tobacco from a porcelain jar that acted like a water pipe and showed us some traditional instruments – the Vietnamese cello, the Vietnamese violin and the Vietnamese electric guitar, complete with whammy bar. A large group of drunk guys joined us and took turns singing while the old man played and everyone clapped.

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Brendon eating cơm cháy

We took a rowboat around the lake, snacked on cơm cháy chà bông (big puffed rice crackers with pork floss) and chatted to Mu. She's an ethnic Hmong from Sapa, but moved to Hanoi and now works 28 days out of the month. The rest of her family still lives in the remote village she was born in and it sounded like she was the main income earner.

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Mu on her phone

She explained how back in her village girls are often married off early through a “kidnapping” tradition whereby during the Tet celebration a boy will kidnap a girl and bring her to live with his family. That night, the girl's family receives a water buffalo horn full of rice whiskey, which they drink if they approve of the proposed marriage or hold off on drinking if they want to give the girl a chance to turn down the offer. A bride price is eventually worked out and, once married, the girl lives with and works for the husband's family.

Mu explained how she artfully dodged all of this by staying home during the New Year celebrations, learning both English and Vietnamese, training to be a guide in her early teens and moving away from home, although she still has some concerns about losing autonomy if she gets married.

It was interesting hearing how she is trying to reconcile her lifestyle with the older generation's ideas and expectations. She tried giving her parents a mobile phone to stay in touch but only her little sister knows how to use it, she has a 90-year-old grandmother who loves to complain about the food, and a father who has health issues but won't stop drinking his rice whiskey – yep, people are people wherever we go.

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We saw a few different methods for catching fish and marine life – this was a trap Mu pulled up for us to take a look. There were also guys who used electricity to stun the fish under the weeds then scoop them into the boat.

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Roadside coconut debris

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Country roads

We jumped ashore in Tràng An village and stopped for lunch at a fisherman's house. Then Mu pulled out three rusty mountain bikes and we set off down some bumpy country roads for a ride in the rain. After about 20 minutes of Katie's granny-style riding, locked gears and seats that fell down, we checked to see if Mu wouldn't mind cutting down the three hours she'd set aside for the ride to maybe an hour and a half. As a shortcut, she took us down the side of a four lane highway. The trick was to not venture too far to the right because it was all slick mud on top of the pavement but at the same time you didn't want to drift too far left into the wild Vietnamese traffic. To add to the fun, we rode past a very popular temple where we had to navigate through crowds of pedestrians shouting “Hello!” and “Tây! Tây! Tây!” Once out of the fray we biked past a few more families parking their vehicles – parents stopped and pointed us out to the children, who gave us wide-eyed stares and waves.

We finally got off the highway and rounded a corner when a group of roadside workers erupted in laughter. Mu said they wanted to know if Brendon would like to take over some shoveling. A lady drove by on a scooter, pointing and shouting. Mu's translation: “Isn't your other leg cold?” Admittedly we may have looked a little ridiculous – we had both rolled up our right pant legs to avoid getting them caught in the gears.

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Fisherman's backyard

We biked back to the fisherman's house for a cup of tea before piling back into the car for the ride home.

Once back in Hanoi we celebrated our last night in town with a few glasses of wine and a pizza – so Vietnamese!

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The next night we boarded the train to Đồng Hới. We'd booked two bunks in a four-bunk sleeper for a journey of about 11 hours.

When we got to our cabin there were eight people already sitting on the two lower bunks. We looked at each other, confused, until a railway employee walked over and spoke to the people harshly in Vietnamese. Four people moved off Brendon's bed and all eight now squeezed onto the one unclaimed lower bunk. Katie climbed onto the top bunk and Brendon sat below trying to motion to the Vietnamese passengers that it was okay if they wanted to go back to sitting on the edge of his bed.

A minute later the railway guy popped back into the cabin and looked at us, rubbing his fingers together. Uhhh? 'Money!' exclaimed the man. 'Money? How much?' '50,000.' Brendon pulled out his cash and handed it over. The man looked up at Katie and pointed. 'Her too? Ối giời ơi!' The man smacked Brendon in the shoulder while the other passengers giggled. Katie fumbled around for her 50,000. Just then the owners of the other two bunks walked in – the man evicted the eight people from the cabin and the process repeated.

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The owners of the other two bunks were Brendan and Tiffany, long-term travellers (and bloggers) from Canada and Switzerland respectively. We chatted for a while then curled up in our comfy bunks and passed out.

We arrived in Đồng Hới at around 7am and got a lift to Phong Nha Farmstay. It's not actually a farm, but it's out in the country and surrounded by rice paddy fields. The farmstay runs a lot of different tours and it's a good base from which to explore the local national parks and cave networks, if you're into that sort of thing.

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On Day 3 we did the most popular tour out to Kẻ Bàng National Park. The day started with a walk through Paradise Cave, a large cave equipped with walkways, good lighting, handrails and rubbish bins.

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Next we stopped for lunch, put on our swimmers and kayaked across a beautiful blue lake to another cave, where we'd been told we could swim.

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This cave was somewhat more rustic than Paradise Cave – the pebbly floor soon turned to mud as our guide Hung led us further and further in. The path became so muddy that you had to hold onto the walls to keep from slipping in the knee-deep muck – unfortunately the walls were also made of mud. Huge boulders had to be clambered over, at great risk to the almost bare arses of all the girls in the group. We were all filthy and sweating profusely by the time we got to a clearing. Was this the swimming hole? No. It was a big puddle of mud. Hung laughed. Some of the younger, more enthusiastic members of the group gleefully threw themselves into the puddle, while the older, crabbier contingent looked at Hung like we were ready to drown him in it.

We turned back the way we had come, sliding down mounds of mud like they were slippery dips. Eventually we turned down a passageway and came out at a big pool of clear water. We waded in and floated around, cooling and cleaning ourselves off. Afterwards we kayaked back, had a few shots of Vietnamese rum and headed back to the farmstay.

That was about enough excitement for us!

Click the sound button to hear a rendition of “In Tall Buildings”

We spent some time chilling with Heidi and Isaac, a couple from Washington State who were playing hostels and guesthouses to cover their accommodation.

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The rest of our time at the farmstay was spent unwinding from Hanoi with a little reading, writing and relaxing among the rice paddies.

 

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