Carly and I were well happy to be leaving Nha Trang – we enjoyed our visit here but definitely overstayed by a night. Three would have been plenty, and possibly even two. Part of the problem here was the weather – while it was great to chill out it was very windy. We’ve quickly discovered that the temperature starts to drop fast as you work your way up the coast – at this stage I’m wearing trousers during the day and jumpers at night. As detailed in my previous post, we spent the final day killing time. By 5pm we were all ready for the bus to pick us up. Only it didn’t exactly go according to plan.
The lady who we had booked with the previous day arrived in to see us on her motorbike. I knew it was bad news straight away. Due to some sort of a ‘traffic accident’ and ‘road blockage’ our bus was unable to depart that evening and we would have to wait until the following day to leave. Feck! Apparently it was affecting all bus companies and our only option would be to stay a fifth night and take a 6am bus out the next morning. To be fair to the woman, she did make the effort to drive down and give us a full refund.
We quickly got on the internet and started researching last minute flights and train options in order to get to Hoi An as soon as possible. We had spent enough time chilling out and just wanted to get a move on again. Unfortunately neither of these options were possible. A couple of minutes later we went over to the reception desk to enquire about another bus. A few phone calls later he had us booked on a 10pm bus out of the city. Happy days! It seemed what we had heard earlier wasn’t exactly true. I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt and say it must have been lost in translation.
After another four hours of killing time we headed to the bus depot. Finally we would be leaving. It was a little worrying to see that there were no other Western passengers – I must admit I always feel a bit more comfortable when there are. A couple of minutes later we were told to get on a mini bus – only it was just the two of us. What was going on? Our bags were put in the back and I must admit I leapt over the seat in the van at one point to ensure they were still there. I guess that story of Carly’s friend having her baggage stolen in South America still haunts me! A few more minutes passed and fifteen odd European passengers started to get into the van with us – I was quite relieved to hear a few Dutch accents!
It’s important to state at this point that we had booked an overnight ‘sleeper’ bus in advance. It was going to give us a lot more room than a normal bus and with a comfortable place to lie back and sleep on. Off we went in the mini-van crammed like sardines. I had just enough space to breathe and move one of my arms. There were four of us on our row. We had just presumed we would be a few minutes before we’d be transferred onto the bigger bus. Surely? Only this didn’t happen. About ten minutes later a mini-television was switched on at the front of the van. Why were they switching this on if we were going to be transferring? Were we going to be stuck on this van for at least twelve hours, possibly more? I also need to add that the programme that was turned on for our entertainment was one of the most annoying things ever. It was some bizarre Asian singing/comedy show. To say it was out of tune was an understatement. It was no Top of the Pops. I’ve never seen Carly reach for her iPod as quick in her life. I endured the show a little longer but followed suit along with anyone else on the bus that had one.
Thirty minutes in and it was starting to get really uncomfortable. Soon afterwards the bus pulled over in the middle of nowhere and the driver hopped out. Thank god, surely they must be transferring us now and the other bus must be around the corner. It turned out the driver was going for a slash. It was then I started to ask what was going on. ‘2 hours!’ I was told. Hmmm ok, we’ve no choice but to go with it. The two hours passed and we got into a small village. It was pitch black outside at this stage and the van started to do a number of u-turns. What was he looking for? A little bit later we pulled up at a closed petrol station. It started to rain as we got out. Nice. We all stood under the station shelter as the driver wandered off to the restaurant next door. Can somebody please explain what is going on?
A bit more time passed and we were encouraged to go into the restaurant. There was no way I was going to sit down and be sold a load of food I didn’t want so we stayed put. More time passed and eventually a small bus pulled up – it was the Vietnamese passengers who we had been waiting with originally at the bus depot. It was starting to make more sense now. Maybe we were all going to be transferred together? The locals quickly moved into the outdoor restaurant, sat down and ordered food. It would seem we would be here for a while. Once again the driver tried to usher us in. This time we agreed. During the next hour, we sat down and basically stared the driver out of it while he drank endless bowls of soup and chain smoked his way through at least ten cigarettes. He was having a great time with the owners and his pals. There were two Australian girls and a Dutch guy there who we were able to have a bit of a laugh with – at the situation that is. You just can’t take these things too seriously. You must go with the flow. One evil highlight for me was Carly having to go to the loo. The only option was a squatting toilet around by the garage. I had a childish giggle to myself while I waited outside. As a guy, I was able to sneak around the back and go in the dark.
After a bit more waiting around (have I stressed this part enough?), a mega bus finally arrived. We’re saved! It started to lash rain and we couldn’t get on quick enough. A race to clamber on endured – myself and Carly ended up getting separated as I had to go around to the other side to get my bag on. By the time I was on the stairs of the bus I was instructed to take my shoes off and put them into a plastic bag. No problem. It was at this point I heard a lot of people shouting and getting a bit rowdy. What was going on? It turned out they were shouting at Carly as she was being forced to climb up a set of make-shift stairs into her ‘bed’. She was blocking the way for the other passengers and they weren’t impressed! ‘Carly!! What the hell?’ I shouted. It was in fact very funny. I got my first look at the inside of the bus – there’s a picture below but it does no justice. It was three rows of ‘beds’ with two levels. You climbed into this coffin and there you would stay for the remainder of the journey. It was a bit like being stuck in a mini prison cell. It had as much space as the 1970s submarine equivalent I had visited in Darling Harbour last year. It was hilarious. The Vietnamese fella next to me must have been well used to it – he quickly stuck on his mask (as you do in Asia) and conked out asleep immediately. Well for some.
Me and Carly had a bit more of a laugh as we shouted across to each other. She was not so lucky with her seat as she one in the middle, right underneath the air conditioning unit. We both had bags with us but had nowhere to put them. They tried to take mine off me but I was like ‘as if!’. Instead I had to put it between my legs and try to make myself comfortable. After listening to a few songs I took my sleeping tablets (lost without) and knocked myself out. I woke up once or twice but was drowsy. When I woke up properly we had more or less arrived at our destination. There was one final toilet stop beforehand where I ventured out into a mucky field which turned out to be someone’s garden – I felt a bit guilty looking at the house but that’s where the bus had stopped so there was no choice. It was amusing to see a Vietnamese lady and her husband desperately try to find a private place for her to go. There were barely any shrubs never mind trees so this wasn’t an option. In retrospect, once we had arrived at our destination and gotten off the bus, it didn’t seem all that bad in the end. Sleep wise, I certainly slept better than I did on one of the standard night buses I had taken in Australia. However I’m sure there are more comfortable sleeper buses in existence than this one!
First impressions of Hoi An were very positive. It’s a sleepy little town – not as quaint as Mui Ne but it certainly had a charm to it. We checked into our hotel fairly quickly. It was a lovely little place called the Sunflower and I would highly recommend it – the staff were extremely friendly and it had the best breakfast on offer so far. After a quick shower we headed out to explore the ‘old town’ area. We bought a generic ticket that allowed us access to five heritage sites. This included temples and old style Vietnamese houses with Japanese and Chinese influences. My favourite was the traditional music concert that we were treated to at one of the stops – I got to see some very exotic Asian instruments being played. They also performed and sang Auld Lang Syne in the countdown to the Lunar New Years Eve. That evening we headed back in that direction for dinner and to see the set-up for the party that would be held the following night. There were plenty of decorations all lit up and a concert stage.
Wednesday arrived and it was also my 28th birthday. This time one year ago I spent that evening drunk in a Japanese karaoke bar in Dublin with friends. Little did I know where I would be the following year! The hotel showed a nice personal touch as I was wished a happy birthday at breakfast by the staff. Shortly after they called to my room with flowers! As a guy I’m not too keen on flowers but I must admit I was very impressed. I also got birthday cards from Carly and Liz (who had given it to Carly in Sydney). That morning we took a half day tour to ‘my son’ (pronounced ‘may son’). We got to see the ruins of a religious centre dating back to the 4th century. To be honest it wasn’t all that impressive after visiting Ankor Wat a couple of weeks earlier. However in its defence it was a lot older.
On the tour we met two other travellers – a Finnish lad named Eriko who was of a similar age to us and an older English ex-pat who had since relocated to Australia ten years ago when he was thirty. The four of us got talking and later that day we arranged to meet up and celebrate the evening together. We had dinner once again in the old town near the river banks and had a few drinks. I bought Carly a pink helium balloon for a laugh just after dinner – a small highlight later on was when she gave it to a little girl who had been staring at it for quite a while (with my permission of course!). I’ve never seen a child so happy. You can see a picture of her below – she was just adorable and I think we made her evening.
The New Years celebrations consisted of a number of things – the main event was taking place on the concert stage where various singers performed. One song in particular that will now always remind me of Hoi An is ‘Happy New Year’ by Abba. It was probably one of their least well known songs but by god was it played a lot! Elsewhere some of the locals were taking part in the Vietnamese equivalent of piñata. Instead of tying a cover around your eyes you put on this strange looking doll mask that reminded me of that horror film Valentine. You then walked (blind) towards a little urn. From there you would have to guess the right angle and swing your bat. Children would start banging cymbals together and making more noise as you got closer. They would shout directions at you but naturally it was hard to hear. Yours truly was only happy to have a go but I did miss. It was harder than it looked.
It was close to twelve and by this stage we were up near the concert stage. A few songs later the hosts came back on stage and the ten second countdown appeared on the screen. For a second or two it almost felt like it was our own New Years Eve again. However there were a few key differences – people did shout out the numbers in an excited fashion but on the stroke of midnight it all went quiet. Nobody hugged one another or shouted etc. There was no Auld Lang Syne and everyone was sober. Thank god I didn’t drink much I would have made a show of myself. It was all quite mundane and strange for me in comparison. However it was interesting to observe their tradition and what followed made up for it – a spectacular twenty minute firework display. It was one of the best I had witnessed in person and a lovely way to end my birthday.
The next morning it was an early start as we were on a bus to Hue at 8am. We’ve decided since Nha Trang that ‘less is definitely more’ – it’s better to leave a place after a couple of days with very good memories than drag it out and ruin some of the positive feelings associated with it. We were unable to book a proper bus for that day as it was New Years Day and all of the bus companies were shut. The only option was our favourite – the mini van! Once again we were all crammed in for a five hour journey. The most annoying part here were some of the passengers – one English girl, an American guy and an Australian lad in particular were drinking whiskey and were shouting their way through the entire trip. It was too much ‘spring break!’ for me, especially at that hour and with a severe lack of sleep. At one point the girl demanded that the driver pull over so she could go to the toilet and threatened that she would go in her pants if he didn’t do so straight away! Poor Carly was mortified. One positive point about the journey is that it took one hour less than what we were told – the thrill of arriving early I had almost forgotten when it felt like!
Our hotel in Hue was once again another really good one – it’s called the Amigo Hotel and at 15 dollars per room per night it’s fantastic value for money. I would highly recommend it. After we checked in we headed out for a walk around the town to check it out. From what we had read in the guidebook, it was far quieter than normal due to the holiday season and this suited me down to the ground. Most of the shops and businesses were closed. For a change I wasn’t once offered a moto or taxi! Love it. It’s a nice town but nothing spectacular. After a wander around, we had dinner and an early night.
Thursday was again an early start at 6.30am. We had booked the day before to go on a half day tour. The highlight for us and one of the main reasons for visiting Hue are the royal tombs. There were three that we visited – my favourite being the tomb of Minh Mang. They date back to the early 19th century and belonged to the respective emperors at the time. Some of the architecture and scenery surrounding the tombs was just spectacular. We also got to visit the Thien Mu Pagoda (1601) which was well worth seeing. As with most organised tours, there were a few ‘dud stops’. These included having to pay fifty cent into what was effectively someone’s back garden to see a few plants and a visit to observe how incense sticks were made. Basically it was an excuse for a sales pitch! Due to my trip taking four months, I have a policy of not buying any souvenirs unless I practically need a magnifying glass to see them. The other tourists who were on our bus were very friendly. One couple in their early 50s from New Zealand filled me in on lots of useful information and at the end gave me their number and said to call them so they could show me around in Auckland! How nice was that? I’ve heard that New Zealanders are amongst the friendliest in the world and this was a fantastic first impression. I’m really looking forward to my time there in March.
A special mention from the tour must go to our guide. On the day we had booked, we received a quote of ten dollars from our hotel. We tend to shop around these days after overpaying previously and managed to find a local tour operator offering the same one for five dollars. Half price! How could this company afford to do it so cheaply? Well we were promised an ‘English speaking guide’ and technically, he delivered. Camp as Christmas, I could probably understand about 35% of what he was saying. That’s when I was fully concentrating. Still, he would make a wonderful drag queen miming (poorly) to Whitney Houston songs in Bangkok or Phuket. I’m sure he’d learn the infamous ‘lip quiver’ in no time. He was a nice guy though and did his best to help which is more than I can say for many other tour guides.
That evening, we met up with Aaron, one of the other tourists from our bus that day. He’s from LA and dead sound so we invited him for dinner. At one point during the meal I mentioned how Abba’s Happy New Year had been played loads recently. He innocently asked ‘Is that a 1st world song?’. Those of you that know me will know I’m not the most PC person at times (although it’s all in good humour). Still I was shocked when he said this and Carly who is PC was even more horrified. It was hilarious for me watching her facial reaction and the conversation that followed. Aaron if you’re reading this sorry but it had to be mentioned mate! I did embarrass both of them in the pub shortly after though. I walked up to the table and noticed there were four chairs so without thinking, I quickly removed one and put it at another table where two women were eating their dinner. I didn’t realise the rudeness until Aaron took it back and put it elsewhere. Woops! Bold Matt. We played some cards after and then headed home for yet another early start. Instead of sightseeing, we were up for our first flight. We decided on flying from Hue to Hanoi as the cost was only 60 dollars and it took 1 hour as opposed to 12-15 odd on the bus.
I was a bit weary of flying with Vietnam airlines but I have to say this was completely unfounded. The flight took off on time, the journey was smooth, it was the most amount of space we have had on any public transport in a long time and our baggage came out straight away. Couldn’t believe it! The plane itself was far nicer than anything Ryanair offer and at that price you couldn’t get much better. One funny part though was when we got onto the bus in the airport field in Hoi An to get to the plane. We all packed in and after a few minutes the driver started up the engine. He literally drove forward for five seconds, did a u-turn and then pulled over. What a waste! Surely they should have had some barriers instead? Anyway loving the plane. We’ve just arrived at Hanoi – we have two nights here then we’re off on a two day trip to Halong Bay which is meant to be one of the highlights of South East Asia. I'll also have no mobile or internet access for two days whilst on the island. I can’t wait.