The ‘open bus’ journey from Hanoi to Dong Hoi took about 10 hours. These buses are a hoot – 3 rows of bunk beds. All the foreigners are put in the top bunks and the locals get the bottom ones. I have a theory about this allocation: it gives the locals a good laugh to see all the oversized gringos struggling to prize themselves into shoeboxes 2 metres off the ground. Needless to say, you don’t go to the toilet unless you’re really desperate! Mind you, all the westerners around us managed to get off to sleep effortlessly while we remained bolt upright and wide-eyed all night like a scene from The Exorcist. How do they do that?!
We arrived in Dong Hoi at 4 in the morning – dumped off on a nondescript street with an inadequate map and the name of the hotel we’d booked. A couple of guys on motorbikes came up to us trying to goad us on to the back of their bikes. This would’ve proved difficult as we had our cases with us. We walked off. The hotel turned out to be about 5 kilometres from our drop-off point. We eventually found a cab after walking about 2K. But, we saw the sunrise!
Dong Hoi is a tourist-free zone and we were constantly the objects of amusement and interest, answering to countless ‘Hellos’ all day. This area of Vietnam is on the coast of the famous Gulf of Tonkin. Those of you old enough will remember the ‘incident’ in 1964 when (allegedly) the US invented an act of aggression against their ships by the North Vietnamese in international waters whilst patrolling the area, with a wholly peaceful intent. This landmark event gave the US congress all the impetus it needed to sanction the bombing of the north and the landing of ground troops for the first time at Da Nang the following year.
Although there is little to see here, it was great to get away from the madness of the big tourist cities. It’s also a great place to explore one of the wonders of the world…
Phong Na Caves
You know, every once in a while you get that ‘Wow’ moment, when the overused word ‘awesome’ actually gets used correctly? Well, here it is. If you like caves, stalactites, etc., you owe it to yourself to see this place. Alternatively, just look at some of my pictures. Coincidentally, we met a couple of Dutch guys we’d chatted to a couple of days before at our hotel. We were, probably, the only foreigners in the area so we teamed up and hired a boat together to go to the caves. We were impressed with ourselves that we managed to climb the 300-odd steps to the ‘dry’ cave in the searing heat and humidity. We were drenched and the main attraction in many of the locals’ photos as manifestly we were some bizarre circus act from another planet: tall, white guy; tall, blonde woman; taller, thinner, white guy; small, black guy.
Back in Dong Hoi we decided to change hotels; we were in a place where, unusually, the reception staff were often non-existent and completely indifferent to the guests. The first night, we appeared in the dining area at 7pm and were told we were too late for food! Silly us, turning up at such a ridiculously late time for an evening meal.
Sunday was Independence Day in Vietnam; on the 2nd September 1945 Ho Chi Minh announced that Vietnam was to be an independent state, free from Japanese occupation. This elation and freedom was short-lived as the French decided to barge in again, thanking the Japs for looking after the place while they were busy receiving the Germans at home.
On our last night there we decided to risk some street food. We saw what appeared to be boiled eggs being served with vegetables. ‘That’ll do nicely’, we thought. We bought a couple of beers, two boiled eggs and a plate of veggies. I started opening my egg and liquid dripped out. Peeling off some more shell revealed a half-formed chicken – not quite the veggy meal I was hoping for. Helen, who can usually tackle any foodstuff, also gave this abortion a wide berth. ‘OK, let’s go for a pizza again!’
We left Dong Hoi on the train for Hue. I’ll write more from there.