The beach, the town, coracles and cooking, day 12

The Beach

Beach at Hoi An

My hosts at the homestay knew I was vegetarian, and presented me early next morning with a big bowl of fruit, toast and eggs. I’m not a big breakfast person, but managed to do some justice to the meal. After that, I set out, but not into Hoi An, opting to head the otherway and investigate the beach.

It was still early, and cool, as I pedalled through the rice fields towards the coast. It wasn’t far, the scenery was pleasantly rural, and I felt refreshed after a good night’s sleep. On the way I passed a man driving his cattle, a fisherman stalking his prey through the checkerboard of paths, and that peculiarity of Vietnam, large cemetaries filled with ornate tombs in the middle of the paddies. Then there was the beach. 

I have to admit it wasn’t the best of days for the diamond seas of tourist brochures and websites. It was deserted, the hour still being early, and the swimmer support bars and cafés were still clearing the detritus of the day before. The sea was, while not angry, was at least a mildly annoyed. The wind whipped it into the shore, and added sand to the general malaise. There was a family having fun in the water, but the consensus amongst the few in the beach was to wait and watch. I wandered up the beach for a while, then decided a coffee, a leisurely trip around town followed by the cycling/cooking event was a better prospect than staying. Besides, I’d dropped the camera into the man at the camera shop, who was confident of fixing it, and was promised to be ready around 11. He’d leant me a camera to use, which was kind of him. So, I headed back

On the way back I saw a classic example of the meeting of the traditional and the new: a man was driving his cattle presumably to a new pasture, using a motorbike as the primary means of herding. It looked a good photo opportunity, but, and I admit much might have been to do with my failure to become familiar with the camera, either the photos were out of focus, but those cattle led me a merry dance. They moved just as I took the shutter, or turned round, or simply stopped and refused to come closer. Not wanting to annoy the herdsman, I gave up, took one last photo, the one here where you can just make out the cattle in the distance, and continued on my way. 

The Town

Back in town, I wandered aroung the mix of architectural styles, found a nice coffee spot and saw a cultural show put on gratis by the tourist association. I also passed lines of shops sell everything the tourist needs – you know, those little things that briefly remind you of a time or place, then find their way to the back of cupboards where they live quietly until joyfully rediscovered, when the cycle starts again. At this time od day – it was still before nine, the shops were empty, and the staff either gazing into the distance or finding something to do on their mobile phones.

I liked Hoi An. Yes, it was full of all those things the snobbish tourist eschews, but there was no denying the friendliness of the people, the striking architecture in the Main Street, the river and the boats. As I wondered up and down the Main Street, down to the river and some way along its bank, I began to feel at ease in this tourist town. Like Seam Reap, it managed to retain what made it a tourist spot in the first place. Even in the market, which sold everything from fake watches through t shirts to local produce, this was the case. Yes, it was filled with happy-snappy tourists like myself, but there was no doubt most of its function was to serve the local population.

 My camera was pronounced dead, so I thanked the man, whose name sadly I have forgotten, returned the loan camera and went back into the wide world armed only with the camera in my iPhone. It was a brave move.

The main feature of the day was due to commence, so I headed back to the homestay, and waited for the minivan to pick me up, which it duly did. I wasn’t the only one having chosen the tour, so the bus headed into town to collect the rest of the party, which consisted of four Dutch girls. “Trust the Dutch to opt for the bike tour”, I thought.  I was a little taken aback when we we arrived at the central market, but our tour guide explained it was to find and explain the ingredients we’d been using, which was reasonable enough. However, thanks to the internet cooking has gone global, so when she stopped, pointed at an item, and asked what it was, most of us knew. The mushrooms floored me, not the turmeric or lemongrass. Still, it was fun, and the girls managed to buy some delicacies which looked to contain predominantly sugar.

Behind the central market lies the river, and it was to here we headed next. I was still expecting to see bikes, and, when we were ushered aboard a large if tired boat, I looked around to see them. There were none. I ruminated as we headed downstream, actually heading towards where I’d been in the morning. If there was cycling to be done, time said it would not be enough for more than a couple of hundred metres, so I asked the obvious question.

“What bicycles?” The guide seemed genuinely puzzled. I pulled out the brochure and gave it to her. She studied it for a second, then shook her head and said excitedly: “No bicycles on this tour, we’re going to take coracles instead !” 

If you’re in a boat in the middle of a river, there’s not much you can do. Besides, I’d never been in a coracle before, and the idea of winding in leisurely fashion through the rice paddies in one was not unattractive, so I smiled, and the conversation turned to other things.

Coracles

If I remember correctly the Welsh were frequent users of these small round boats, using them to traverse marshes, streams and what-have-you. I’d not been aware they were in use in other countries, and, since there is no record of the

Backwater and coracles

Welsh having colonised anywhere in SE Asia, one has to assume that these small, lighweight boats have evolved independently. That they were a feature of most cooking and river-based tours in Hoi An came as a great surprise. I’d heard the music, that bass-heavy sound one hears everywhere these days, but was not prpared fir its context. We rounded a corner, and there they were, a fleet of coracles bouncing around in the water to the sound of Gangnam. I looked inquiringly at our guide. “They’re a Korean group going on a picnic” she said helpfully. All I can say is that the Koreans know how to have fun in these tiny, unstable vessels. They were dancing, singing along, downing beers and so on, led by their tour leader who was literally jumping up and down in his solo coracle. It looked fun, and we stayed for a while watching, until the guide announced our own coracles had arrived. I turned and looked. There were now several boats like ours, each with groups of coracles heading towards them. Our three coracles stood out, not because they were different from the others, but because they were being rowed by comfortable-looking middle-aged mothers, rather than the young and fit of the others. Still, on the bright side there’d be no karaoke with our group, and indeed there wasn’t.

Cooking

I’d done one of these one-day cooking courses before, in Thailand, so had an idea what to expect. Not being that familiar with Vietnamese cuisine, I was looking forward to learning something that is popular in France, and understanding the tastes which are far away from the Thai love of all things hot.

Our chef and teacher

We were greeted by the chef, whose name sadly I have forgotten. She was petite, bouncy, spoke perfect English and had patience with some of the duffers on the course, such as myself. She had also gone out of her way to provide me with a good variety of things to make, which was thoughtful. Having the patience of a saint probably helped, but the Vietnamese are nothing if not polite.

Subsequently, on my return and further exploration of the cuisine, I realised just how good that lady was, and how much we were shown of some classic recipes in what was little more than an afternoon. I still remember those pancakes, which are a staple of restaurants in both Vietnam and France. Hindsight says I should go bck and learn some more, and, perhaps, one day I will. 

Back to Tourist world – Day 11, Hoi An

Hoi An, in the morning

I took the train to Da Nang, arriving there just before 11:00. All the guide books indicated there was a bus to my next stop, Hoi An, and, after several queries, I

Train to Da Nang

found it, lost and anonymous in a street of empty shops and offices. The next bus was not for a couple of hours, the sun was burning, and my pack seemed inexplicably heavy. I needed a refreshing cold drink, somewhere to sit, and, above all, something to do for the next couple of hours. I should point out, by the way, that many streets in the centre of Da Nang were closed, because the ASEAN summit was being held there and due to start in a couple of days. This accounted, hindsight tells me, for the emptiness of the town.

I could have walked down to the main shoping area, but, instead, I saw the bright red exterior of a shop with a portrait of a kindly southern gentleman above the doorway welcoming all those who approached. More importantly, it was both open, had wifi and was air conditioned. The restaurant was empty, having just opened, so I dumped my backpack, and went to the counter. Not being hungry, and not being a regular meat eater, I ordered a salad, a coffee and the largest and coldest bottle of water they sold. I’m not a regular visitor to American fast food chains, but KFC did me proud that day. I surfed the net, read guide books, drank water and generally restored my well-being. People came and went, the restaurant filled, but no-one seemed concerned by the man who had set up camp in the corner table. Refreshed, I left a couple of hours later, and wandered down to the bus stop.

If I have a quibble about travel guides, it is that, because of their nature, much of the information comes from the various tourist or other offices, and the writers have not necessarily experiences what they describe. I came across this on the bus to Hoi An. All the guides agreed on the price, where you could catch it,  and the fact it took you to the bus station in Hoi An, which indeed it did. What they failed to mention was that the bus station is on the fringes of Hua Hin, a few kilometers away from the centre of town.  One mentioned taxis, but, during the short time I was there, they did not seem in ready supply. So, given an impatience I was born with, I began the long walk into town.

I didn’t finish it. My GPS gave the distance to the homestay I’d booked as 7km, and it began to feel like a long 7 km after the first. I kept looking behind in hope,

Lila Homestay, Hoi An

and, some 5 minutes later, saw a taxi. I’m glad I did. It took me to the homestay but, even more importantly, found it, which proved subsequently to be not that easy. Anyway, I arrived, was welcomed, settled into my room and given a bike to use. Charming family who were helpful and well-organized, plus the rooms were neat and clean.

It was getting late, so I headed into town for a quick look and a bite to eat. There couldn’t have been a bigger conrast with the town I’d left in the morning. In Quoc Trang, I was the lone tourist. Here, people from all countries of the world were thronging. The old colonial buildings, the Chinese and Vietnamese shops and houses, even the temples were thronging, and the famous bridge I left for the next day, so busy was it.

In many ways Hoi An, thanks to its discovery by all the tourist guides on the

Hoi An near market

planet, has become a resort town in the way that Ubud in Bali or Hua Hin in Thailand have. There are lots of activities for those who tire of wandering around the markets and drinking in the culture, most of it involving the river, coracles and learning how to cook. The market acts as the centre not only for produce but for these activities. I wandered around, not really attracted by the combined coracle and cooking tours, until my eye was caught by  tour that involved bicycles and cooking. Thinking a tour round the rice fields would be interesting, as would the cooking, of course, I signed up for the afternoon of the next day.

It was already dark, and, though not especially hungry, food and a local beer seemed a good option. The only trouble was that the cafés were full, and the street food (a common problem in Vietnam) featured mostly meat and seafood. There were the vegetarian nems, rice and noodles, but somehow on this night they failed to excite. The only other option seemed to be overpriced western-style food, so I headed back in the direction of the homestay. I remembered seeing some cafés on the way out.

The cafés were there, as was the beer, but there were also lots of locals, at least as far as could be seen in the near-Stygian gloom. As in many countries, public lighting falls off sharply when you move away from the town centre. I did not feel capable of coping with ordering whatever it was they sold, but without the meat, plus the bass-laden music coming from the speakers did not attract. There were, however, two small general purpose stores, and a shop selling strange medecines and wine. Fortunately one of the stores had cold beer, so I bought a couple of bottles, a bag of chips and and odd-looking chocolate roll, and returned to the homestay and feasted in my room.

Quang Ngai, a pause for reflection – Day 10

I have no pictures of Quang Ngai. Booked into the room, arranged my few possessions, and dropped the camera again. It came on briefly, then died, a useless lump of expensive glass and impact-resistant plastic.

Let me be frank: you do not go to Quang Ngai for the sake of the town itself. It’s a fairly typical, straight up-and-down town, slightly grimy at the edges and without much in the way of sights. There are no Cham towers, no shimmering beaches, no mountain bike scenery.  Hotels are cheap and honest, but resorts? Look elsewhere. No, you go to Quang Ngai for one reason alone, and that is Son My, because Son My contains the small hamlet of My Lai.

I’m not going to go into the history of the massacre, because it is so well known. I chose to go to to My Lai for the impact it had had on me as a teenager still learning about the world. Even now, when researching the history of Vietnam, that single small event in the overall scheme of things still makes me angry, and upsets me. I lost a lot of faith in human nature learning how supposedly civilised men would follow an order to massacre and entire village of unarmed civilians, and do so without  questions or regret. There were two semi-heroes, the soldier who shot himself so he couldn’t take part, and the helicopter pilot and crew who tried to save at least some amongst the carnage. I cannot understand how humans could unquestioningly do such things, let alone live with it afterwards.

I also cannot understand how someone could be party to the cover up, nor how the planners and perpetrators got away scot free. Of course, once it became known, the impact did much to speed the end of the war, and lost the US Army support for a long time, just as the US government lost any remaining support it had internationally for the war which they already knew they couldn’t win and were searching for a way out.

House foundation, Memorial Park

Son My is some way out of town, and is a village consisting of smaller hamlets. The authorities decided not to rebuild My Lai, so all that is left are the foundations of the houses that were destroyed, the memorial and the museum. It is well-tended, and, when I was there, empty. The photos in the museum are both striking and harrowing. The image that sticks in my mind is of the US soldier assisting a bewildered old man leave his house. A few minutes later, he was shot.

 I left Quang Ngai with mixed feelings the next day. The more I thought about it – and what else can you do on a nondescript train journey – the more it seemed, for me, anyway, a worthwhile deviation.There was also the nagging feeling that I’d missed out on seeing much of an interesting area, so much so I’ll go back next trip. Of My Lai I did not want to think. It remains a cruel blot on the history of the human race.

 

Holiday towns in the rain – day 9

The Beach

Beach, Nha Trang

I was up early next morning, as anyone whose room overlooked an army base would be. Not that I minded, I am an early riser anyway, but the noise of hundreds of boots drilling below drove me out. Reception lent me an umbrella, and off I went.

Taking the plunge ?

Beach resorts on grey, wet days always seem far more depressing than inland towns and cities, and Nha Trang was no exception. As the day progressed, a few hardy souls ventured out to the beach, but not many ventured into the sea, which, as the pictures show, was sandy and troubled. This man was clearly in two minds about the advisability of taking the plunge. Ten minutes after I’d taken the photo, he was still there, lost in thought.  

There being little point in remaining, I turned my back on the beach and headed towards the market, stopping at a small coffee shop on the way. There was one other person there, who greeted me in and affable manner. He had a North American accent, but whether Canadian or American I could not tell, so I asked.

I did not mean to offend him, my reaction was spontaneous. I said I sympathized with him, it must be difficult for and American travelling at that moment. He didn’t day anything, but went to the counter, ordered another copy and found a seat as far away from me as possible. Americans can be sensitive, it seems.

Market

Market stalls

I’m not a marketoholic, or whatever the word is, but the persistent rain meant that the resort-based attractions of Nha Trang were not an option for me, and, judging by the people mooning around restaurant, bars and coffee shops, most other people. So, armed with my trusty umbrella and camera, I set off to see what else the town had to offer, which was mainly a market, although, as I found out later, some surprising other options, given the nature of its politics. 

I took some desultory photos of restaurant menus, the ones with pictures of each dish on display, in the rain, motorcycles in the rain, stallholders in the rain, my foot (not intentional) in a puddle, tourists wearing plastic macs, locals wearing plastic macs and so on, in the certain knowledge they would turn out as drab as I felt, until I found the market. 

Stallholder in the rain

Part of the market was inside, but I did not spend long there, prefering to see what was on the street. Perhaps it was me, but the all pervasive damp had rendered the interior forlorn. At least outside there was life, and colour, although  the mood was still one of dull resignation, as the photo shows.

The rain had probably reduced the size of the shopping crowd, but some stallholders still busied themselves with minor tasks, much as staff in empty restaurants do. I was interested to see the conical hats everywhere, much as I had previously in Hanoi the year before.

The downpour steadily increased. My umbrella was at its protective limit, so I diverted into a café for and unnecessary, and as it turned out iced, coffee. It wasn’t particularly cold, but I wasn’t in a hurry. As it happened, I’d taken a seat outside under the veranda, rather than in the air-conditioned interior, and there I saw the man whose job it was to look after the motorbikes parked outside the café. His face was expressionless as he walked up and down ay a leisurely pace, until the ennui got to him and he returned to his chair. He stared out disapprovingly into the rain. It was Vietnam, so he had seen a lot.  I could only sympathise.

I headed back towards the hotel, resolving to change, and find somewhere to eat. Despite having weathered the downpours, I hadn’t considered the impact on my little 500m stroll down the lanes to the guesthouse. They had turned into mini torrents, not more than knee deep it has to be said, but it would make for an uncomfortable walk, especially as the waters hid the occasional pot hole, as I would no doubt discover. Accordingly, I took shelter outside a massage parlour and consulted my guidebook for good places to eat. While I did, one of the girls started chatting with me, pointing out the obvious advantages of massages, and the cheap price. I smiled, we chatted, then I politely declined, saying I’d think about it later.

When that later came, after I’d bought my air ticket from Hué to Hanoi and after the rain had stopped, the game had changed. The same girl came out, and began offering me even lower prices. I kept on declining, and she kep on lowering the price. Finally, having exhausted that, she offered something I’m sure the Communist Party of Vietnam had outlawed years before. Frankly, politely declining was out of the question, so I raced off , followed by the girl for a frantic couple of metres, until she stopped and said something in her native tongue I’m sure wasn’t polite.

I reflected later, over a consoling beer, that the whole situation was really my fault. Yes, I had been naive, in not even thinking what might be on offer, but more so because my politeness had been mistaken for interest. I had lead the girl on, a simple “No” to begin with would have prevented an awkward situation. At my age, I should have known better.

 

 

 

 

 

Nha trang, rain google maps and disappearing guesthouses – Day 8

It rained in Nha Trang, solidly, consistently and annoyingly, the whole time I was there. Not only that, google maps contrived to send me on a wild goose chase which involved a brush with the military. Oh, and I dropped the camera, although it seemed to survive without a problem.

Google maps

It was a fair walk from the station to my guesthouse, but google promised a reasonably straightforward one. The rain started within minutes, but only in a half-hearted way.

I followed google’s itinerary precisely, stopping frequently to check, as it took me further and further away from what appeared to be the middle of town down empty suburban streets of mildewed flats towards a wide street with a set of gates at the end. This struck me as odd. When I reached the gate, it became even odder – there was a parade ground, another gate, what looked like army barracks, and the inevitable couple of US aircraft left over from the war. The whole construction screamed military base, not a highly-rated tripadvisor guesthouse. 

I retreated. Google told me to carry on. I dived down different side streets. Each time Google brought me back resolutely to the gates. I was minded of Harris and the Hampton Court maze. With that in mind, I turned Google off, and headed towards what appeared to be, and in fact was, the town centre, and a posh looking hotel. Ritzy hotels are useful in Vietnam, because the staff will speak English, as was the case. They hadn’t heard of my lodging, but obligingly rang for me. There followed ten minutes of  conversation which I assumed to be directions, followed by a silence, some smiles, and that was the end of the call. They hadn’t understood the directions, and the owner was coming to get me, they thought on his motorcycle.  It was raining hard now, and I wasn’t looking forward to riding pillion.

I needn’t have worried. There smiling owner arrived, and together we walked the 200 metres to the hotel, it was that close. Installed in my room, I opened the window to see, not 20 metres away, a parade ground and a gate. Google had been 100% accurate, apart from one small detail. The back of the guesthouse stood on the exact spot Google had indicated, only there was no access from that street. 

 

Day 7: Return to Ho Chi Minh City, and broken resolutions

I’ll be honest: I looked at the options for going back to HCM, where I’d booked the train for the trip north, happened by chance on the Vietnam airlines website, and in a couple of clicks had invested $20 in a return flight. This despite a longstanding resolution only to travel by land transport wherever I happened to be, as you can’t see much from an aeroplane. That it would give me the morning in Phu Quoc, and the afternoon in HCM, where I would overnight and leave next morning, was icing on the cake.

Not having the moto, and dismissing the massing clouds, I set off to wander down the coast. It was one of those days with not a lot of sunshine, some wind, and a sea which, if not angry , was at least mildly disturbed. There weren’t too may on the beach, either, put off no doubt partly by the hour and partly by the unappetising conditions. The resorts I passed seemed barely full, and the men repairing roofs, cleaning, or performing other sundry resort business outnumbered their guests by a clear majority.

Further down the beach, and only a handful of meters offshore, was a fishing boat. Nobody appeared to be on board, but, on shore, two youths were busy hauling in the net. I wondered what their intended catch was, given the proximity of a handful of  bathers, but did not wait to find out. The further I progressed down the coast, the more ominous the sky became.

Some people hate being photographed, and neither, it appears, do some cows. This one looked at me with deep dislike, mingle with suspicion. I tried to explain that it was safe from being served up on my dinner plate as I didn’t eat meat, but the animal was not convinced.

It belonged to a small cluster of habitations in a narrow strip of farmland between the main road and the sea. Phu Quoc might be rapidly turning into a fantasy land of resorts and backpacker hotels, but, for some of the locals, life remained as it was.

I don’t know whether these wer permanent homes or temporary shelters, nor whether the people were impoverished fisherman or comfortably off, but the chair on the veranda got me musing on their lifestyle. It struck me evenings sitting in the chair, contemplating life as it passed by, undisturbed by the frenetic pace at which us westerners live, would have its attractive side. No internet, no emails, just nature, the lowing of cattle, the happy fatigue of a day well spent, the gentle conversation with loved and dear ones …

It struck me the chair faced the road, not the coast, so the idyll would be regularly punctured by the noise of motorbikes, buses and lorries. In the end, it was just a chair on a veranda.

I arrived back in HCM in the late afternoon, when peak hour was beginning to warm up. The bus driver dropped me off about 400 metres from my hotel, and took pains to ensure I knew the way. I smiled and nodded, then, under his watchful eye, headed off in the certain knowledge I was going to consult google maps the moment the bus was out of sight. I was to find out shortly that google maps were less than perfect, but, for the instant, they guided me across a maze of teeming small streets and motorcycle choked alleys to my hotel. The contrast with Phu Quoc couldn’t be more marked, yet I was happy to be back in HCM, just as I had been happy to be in Ph:u Quoc.

Day 5: Phu Quoc at last

The ferry left promptly at 08h30, with, for once me on it. It was a fast ferry, in other words a hydrofoil, with upstairs and downstairs accommodation. Seats sere comfortable, we were given the obligatory bottle of water, and were soon speeding along to Phu Quoc. The journey takes roughly one and a half hours, and you pass by some small islands on the way to the brooding mass growing on the Horizon that turns into Phu Quoc. 

You can, by the way, go ouside to a small deck at the rear, which I did after the Kung Fu films showing in the salon began to pall. I did enjoy the morality tale, however, shown as we were entering the harbour, where a bright-looking ten year old was picked up by the police for impeding traffic on public highways. His

Ferry interior

father came to get him, initially angry, but when he and the police explained he had just been picking up paper as the campaign to keep the island clean wanted him to do. The father began to melt, and broke into sobs when the virtuous boy added « and I wanted to help you, to make your job easier., father, because I know it is part of your job.» It is a shame the human race looks askance at noble sentiments such as these. Mark you, in most places nut just here the boy would have lasted a matter of minutes before either being rushed to hospital or to jail for disturbing the peace. The 21st century is a cynical one, I’m afraid.

It being lunchtime, I walked down to the main road where three or four restaurants were clumped together. Without without to be too hard, they were very much of the beer, chips and omelette type, and advertised everything from burgers through pizzas to gelato. Sandwiched in between were the veggie dishes, and I have to say the news were the equal of any I’ve tasted. The only slight downside was that none served Bahn Mi, the great staple dish created by a fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine – Phu Quoc isn’t that sort of island. A typical example was Kim’s, which served seafood as advertised, kicking off with fish and chips. Well, you serve what the market wants on resort islands, and they did it well. 

Phu Quoc, which produces the world’s best nuoc mam, is a fast-developing  resort island, where long beaches flank a crystal sea. The hills provide a glorious backdrop – in fact, it is much as the brochures say. The guide books wax lyrical, as do all the reviews in Tripadvisor and the like. However, they fail to mention the two big caveat that applies to many beach-based resorts: You want to be on the beach side, not across the road that runs down the coast. This particularly applies to newer resort areas, where buildings are shooting up with a minimum of time (and apparently planning) to cash in on the boom. Most guides don’t mention this, but, basically the higher the price the better the position. The more expensive the resort, the more likely it is to be on the beach. Sheratons, Marriots, Anantara and the ilk are all going to be on the beach, the mid range are going to be on the other side of the road, and the hostels are going to be clumped together in the towns a fair walk from the beach across several busy roads.

Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with the mid price, resorts, nothing at all in fact, and the facilities are often excellent, just be aware that, if you see yourself whiling away the hours on the beach, alternating between reading, dips, and the odd refreshing beer, you probably won’t find it that easy. My resort was on the other side of the road, and crossing meant dodging the ever-present scooters. They move slowly in Vietnam, so survival rate is quite high, but I then had an 800m walk that took me through two sodden, muddy, and ugly building sites before arriving at the beach. When I got there – and the return of the rain might have jaundiced my view – the only places where I could lie on the beach with the odd ale all charged Sheraton prices. The same was true of the restaurants. As it happened, the rain which was to be a feature of most of my trip precluded much beach-based activity.

In the afternoon I walked into town by road. It isn’t possible to do this on the beach, partly because of the aforementioned building sites but also because the beach is not one continuous strip, but is broken by streams and rivulets emptying into the sea. The formula is pretty much resorts new or under construction on one side, and restaurants, shops, the paraphernalia of any town where supermarkets haven’t killed local businesses on the other. There is a private musem that also functions as a restaurant and hotel, which is worth visiting, especially at the 20000 d price. It is in one of the older traditional houses, which adds to the interest.The jury is out on whether their turning on each room into something that reflects the exhibits is a success, though. The section on coral, which is on the ground floor, has sculpted rooms designed to emulate caves, but the coral, behind tanks and glass, seems curiously bleached, so I doubt it is living. The skeletons of various fish also left me somewhat cold.

I spent some time, in between sheltering in various spots, contemplating resorts and their function and came to the following conclusion:  if you want to stay in a proper resort, as in one where you don’t need to venture outside save for the occasional tour, don’t go for half measures, but pay top dollar, it really is worth it. If you’re not a resort person, then anywhere is fine, just be aware that your beachside experiences are going to be much the same as anyone staying in a seaside town, and that can often be far more varied and interesting, if not quite as relaxing.

I remember once, when touring the Nile on a riverboat, a conversation with the tour guide. It was towards the end of the trip, and we were sat in the shade just down from the valley of kings. I’d been happily wandering around on my own, making my own discoveries removed from the rest. The guide commented on this, and asked me why. I was a little stumped for a reply, but then said something about the rewards of finding things out for yourself, rather than having them spoon-fed to you. 

The guide nodded, and said ‘You know, the trouble is you aren’t a tour person”

He was right, and neither am I a homestay person nor a resort person. 

Day 3: A short sojourn in the Mekong Delta

Bus Station, Ho Chi Minh City

I can’t remember why I thought this was a good idea when planning the trip. The Delta sounded, and indeed is, interesting, the question was more one of time and travel to Phu Quoc. I’d only allowed an overnighter in the Delta, and reading the bus timetables while on the way to Vinh Long, began to wonder whether I would be able to get to the ferry in Rach Gia in time. Certainly, the girl whose blog I was reading indicated it would be a challenge. I’d already booked the room, plus that for the return to HCM before heading north, and, besides, I had a particular interest in spending time on the island.

As an aside: Futa bus lines offer wifi on their buses. They also have their own bus stations often far from the main ones, but do offer free minbuses to get you from their bus stations to your hotel.

Ferry arriving at Anh Binh

A minibus duly took me to the ferry for Anh Binh, which is across the riverfrom Viny Long, and a couple of minutes later I was relieved of 2000vnd and followed the sign that said Ngoc Phuong, the homestay I had somewhat randomly selected. It was lunchtime, I was hungry, the pack began to way down on me, and the 600m the sign had said was closer to 1 km or more. Nevertheless I found it, entered the compound and let out a hoy. A smiling woman appeared, welcomed me and showed me to my room, of which more later. I asked whether she could give me something to eat – perhaps one of those lovely baguettes they do so well in HCM, stuffed with tofu and salad with a dash of chilli sauce. She offered noodles with pork or chicken soup, a variant of the ubiquitous pho. I had no choice but to tell her the bitter truth.

‘I’m sorry, I should have told you I don’t eat meat.”

She was initially not phased.

“Chicken?”

I shook my head.

“Fish?’ 

Again, I demurred. She grew increasingly astonished

“But you eat prawn?” At my response she seemed lost for words, but the Vienamese are made of sterner stuff “I will make you some noodles and call you when you are ready.” With that, she bustled off leaving me to unpack.

I wouldn’t call that lunch the best I ever had, but it hit the spot. The noodles were pot noodles,but the vegetables were booked in a nice sauce that more than made up for it, especially in view of the notice I’d given the lady, as in none at all.

I don’t think I’m a homestay person. This one was pleasant enough, the setting all the guide books could imagine, the hosts more than helpful, and the food very good indeed. You do meet other people, but they tend to be other tourists, of which there were quite a few at this particular one, rather than locals. Nothing wrong with that, of course, although it does depend on the cast list in your particular homestay play. Mine included a retired French man who was using his retraite to travel around the world as he had in his youth. There were some other much younger French people staying, with whom he seemed more than at ease with, as they were with him. I noticed, though, they gravitated away from him as the evening progressed. Just before going to bed on the way to the bathroom I passed him sitting outside his hutch, alone, reading a book. I would have stopped to speak to him on the way back, but he had disappeared into his room.

Me, I got the Australians. They were the caricature Australians one meets on holidays, at least, the man was. He was loud brash and opinionated, That he was a supporter of Pauline Hanson came as no surprise, given the views he had expressed in the first couple of minutes of our conversation and his concise analysis of the problems in Australia and its obvious solution. I attempted to demur, while his girlfriend, rather more sensibly, plonked herself in a nearby hammock and went to sleep. At that point the retiree arrived, and was treated to an explanation of why the French were the best team in the world at football, why he hated them, and why they wouldn’t win the world cup. The french man listened politely, then slipped off for a beer at the first break in the conversation. Funny how one thing leads to another. Minutes later I could but follow his lead. The speech had drifted off into electrical standards world wide, and no longer needed any contribution from me.

Communal dining does not worry me, in fact I’m used to it, given how close together the tables are in French restaurant. We sat together on one long thin table, oldies at one end, youngies at the other, and participted in the best meal of the trip, up to this point. We made spring rolls, ate whole fried fish, followed by various pork and chicken dishes. For me they had made an array of egg and vegetable dishes, the highlight of which was the marinated and fried aubergine.

I did not enjoy the homestay. It wasn’t the people, it was the fact it resembled the backpacker hostels of my youth and relative poverty. True, there were no dorms, but we slept in open-topped wooden hutches sitting under the roof of the forecourt of the house. Toilets and bathrooms were spotless, but down a path some 50 metres or so. Not a problem, you say, unless it rains, and boy, did it rain that night. I had determined to leave early, and was relieved, after a disturbed night – jetlag and thunder are a powerful cocktail –  when dawn broke. I slipped out before breakfast, anxious to get the first bus.

In the end, I can’t really comment on the Mekong delta. I managed a long walk down some of the paths which wound between the houses and the various fruit and vegetable crops, but cannot say any justice was done to the place. On the next trip I’ll take the bike, and spend a couple of weeks exploring.

I did have time to visit the local town, however. The atmosphere was distinctly laid back: almost like a French village 
sleeping under the midday sun.

The only discernable activity was the two women chatting in the temple grounds, and a man snoring quietly under the awning of a shop. Even the dogs had bowed to the pressure of the day and were sleeping in clumps around the houses. 

Here and there were the bikes of Asia, carrying loads way beyond manufacturer’s recommendations,
although the moto has become the major form of transport here as it is throughout Vietnam. As I was to find when slipping away the next day, bikes still ruled for the school children and commuters, who hurtled down the path in the certain knowledge obstacles such as pedestrians  or dogs were few, and those who had ventured out would leap obligingly out of the way. Since all traffic was heading to the ferry, I soon developed that sixth sense that alerted me to bicycles approaching from behind, although it has to be said that the noise of motos was easier to live with than the hush of tyres on the concrete path .

Trains

Station, Ho Chi Minh city

I’m a big fan of trains, and was looking forward to ambling up the coast by train. Trains are a good way to see the country generally speakng, and that holds true for Vietnam. There is, however, a but, and it was one that had me travelling by air or by bus. The state of the trains is one thing, but it is the state of the track that is the problem.

One aspect common to all trains was the quality of the service, which was excellent. The food trolleys passed up and down the train at regular intervals, all carrying savoury soups, rice dishes, tofu and meat dishes, plus fruit. You don’t need to bring your own meals in Vietnam Railways. Prices are more than reasonable, too.

The first train I took was SE6 from hcm to Nha Trang. The air-conditioned soft class was fine, though did not appear to be one of the refurbished ones promised

Soft class to Nha Trang

by the man in seat 61. It was faded round the edges, but comfortable enough when stopped. The problem was the bucking bronco effect that lasted the 7 hours. The line is a single narrow-gauge one, which might exacerbate the problem, but those who suffer from sea-sickness should take to the air. 

The second was the SE4 to Quong

Carriage on train to Quang Ngai

Ngai. This did seem to be a reconditioned carriage, but was again a little tatty round the edges. It did have USB ports in every seat, but they weren’t working. Again, there was the bucking bronco effect, though it did smooth out aftera couple of hours. The train does pass through some pretty countryside, and worth it for that.

Train to Quang Ngai

The third, SE2, had not been refurbished, as the photos show. I liked its memories of the seventies, but it was frankly dirty. A lot smoother, but grubby would be my summary, and less than ideal for longer trips.

However, you can easily forget all that if you take one of the day trains from Da Nang to Hué. It isn’t a long journey, though it does take around three hours. The reason is simple. The scenery is stunning.  Shortly after leaving Da Nang, the railway follows the coast and begins to climb. It snakes around the cliffs until it reaches about three or four hundred metres, all the while following the track carved into the cliff. The views are stunning as the coast drops away beneath your feet, especially where the drops are sheer. At several points you see the train in front ( I was at the back) above or below you, as it winds around the steep bends that only narrow gauge railways can tackle. It is some feat of engineering, this section. It was this range of hills, by the way, that prompted the French to abandon their attempts to March on Hué, then the seat of government, and instead move down South to Saigon, where the river was navigable and the terrain flat.

I was perhaps the only person on the train who didn’t know what was in store for us. Having found my seat, moved to another where the seat in front hadn’t jammed in down position thus preventing access, I arranged my pack as a pillow and fell into a dreamless sleep. I was awoken by a lady gently shaking my shoulder.
” Sorry, I can see you’re really tired, but have a look out the view. ”

Too weary to do anything acquiesce, I did, and snapped awake. I have to say I owe that lady a lot. I spent the next 45 minutes glued to the window. I haven’t a great head for heights, but some sights eclipse minor problems like that. The great camera disaster had happened so I have no pictures, but the memory hasn’t begun to fade yet.

Day 4: Not getting to Phu Quoc, or how to miss a ferry

Entry to Rach Gia

In fact, I could have made it, had I realised that the bus left not from Vinh Long, but from Can The, some 30km up the road, and, even then, required a minibus for a further 10km to get to the bus station on the main road between HCM and Rach Gia. Futa bus lines are one of the best, but they have the same attitude to geographical locations as Ryanair does.

As it was, I got to the Vinh Long bus station nice and early, a little after dawn, then everything fell in a heap when I was confronted with the Can The conundrum. The helpful people at the bus station told me there was a public bus to Can The and where to catch it, so I headed there. The bus stop had a couple of people waiting languidly, so I joined them. We waited. The day got hotter, and we waited some more. After what seemed like hours, I gave up on the languid waiting competition and returned to the bus station where I asked the question I should have earlier, the one about what time the bus leaves. It left at midday. The only alternative was a 500000vnd taxi trip, which, bearing in mind the time, I accepted, and off we headed to Can The.

We arrived at lunch time, and nothing much was happening. This didn’t disturb me, I’ve lived in France a long time, but there were one or two backpackers who seemed a little overwrought. Anyway, I bought a coffee off a convenient stall, and settled down to wait. 

The minibus arrived, we were bundled on it and driven to the bus station on the main road where the few of us who were going to Rach Gia were put un a larger bus, and off we went.  Unfortunately the combination of hard suspension and bumpy roads precluded much photography (in some ways no bad thing), but the two hour journey to Rach Gia – actually, it wasn’t Rach Gia, but yet another bus station a handful of kilometres away necessitating yet another change of bus – gave me time to digest the countryside. The towns, such as there were, were fairly anonymous, but the network of canals, rivers and rice paddies I found fascinating, and vowed to come back, this time with the ever reliable Brompton and take the time the delta deserves.

River bank, Rach Gia

Having unexpected time on my hands, I took the time to wander into Rach Gia. Most would pass through it on the way to the ferry with nary a second glance,

Market, Rach Gia

which is a shame, as it is a pleasant town with a bustling, friendly market spreading along the river into the centre. People really welcoming, especially the schoolchildren who love to practice their English on any unsuspecting visitor.

Aside from the market, and not far from the ferry terminal, there is a temple deicated to an early resistance leader, Nguyen Trung Truc. He operated from 1861 until 1868, harrassing the French in the Mekong delta region.  Although most famous for his successful burning of the L’Espérance, a French controlled transport, he later became head of Ha Tien province, where he continued his resistance , despite the signing of the treaty of Saigon in 1862, which ceded the southern part of the country to the French. From his base in Ha Tien in 1868 he successfully attacked and captured the French fort in Rach Gia, but this proved his last act. The French recaptured the fort, and Truc with it. He was executed in Rach Gia that year.

I’m not big on temples, but this one dedicated to Truc is interesting because of the graphic retelling of the attack against L’Espérance in a series of paintings, the statues dedicated to the man and because it is a living temple still very much in use. The French have long gone, but not the spirit this man helped engender.