The Journey To The South (Part One)

When we planned our journey south towards Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) we had a few things to consider

  • trains, not buses
  • daytime, not nightime (we wanted to see Vietnam, not sleep through it)
  • Not too long on the train in one stint

So we decided our first stage would be from Ninh Binh to Dong Hoi, just 8 hours away. When deciding on our first stop we had to consider the points above, but also that the Champions League final was on at 0200 on Sunday morning and Kiwi insisted he had to see it.

The train we were on was not as nice as the first one. It was dirtier, the toilets were horrid (Kraut made a shewee out of a plastic water bottle, it wasn’t a success), and generally just felt like the carriages should have been retired long ago. But the scenery was good, and the local passengers were friendly, even offering us food.

Leaving behind the karst landscape of Ninh Binh, we found ourselves surrounded by rice paddies with and without rice, with and without water. There were buffalo everywhere too. Later on we had hills both sides of us, and closer to Dong Hoi we went through a few short tunnels. Of course, there were also the usual villages and towns, and lots of large Catholic churhes. We guessed they were Catholic as the first missionaries in Vietnam were Portuguese Jesuits in the 16th century.

Dong Hoi is on a few travellers’ itineraries as it is a convenient stop on the way to Phong Na National Park. The park is famous for its caves, and various activites are on offer, including zip lining in one of them. We had thought about staying an extra night so we could make a day trip to the park to visit Paradise Cave (discovered in 2005) but due to

  • suspecting the very touristy nature of the park would be akin to that of Ha Long Bay, and not wanting to share the cave with hundreds of other tourists
  • the high cost involved
  • having seen some nice caves and not feeling an overwhelming need to see another one

we decided against it. So two nights it was. Kiwi asked around and found a place to watch the football (and enjoyed watching Liverpool win) The guesthouse was nice too, so that helped.

Dong Hoi is built on the banks of the Ngat Le river, where it flows into the sea. We spent Sunday morning at the beach, swimming in the warm water, watching the fishermen just offshore, and picking up some of the plastic rubbish that littered the beach. Later on we went for a walk along the river to see what else was going on.

The “War Crime”

The riverbank was a nice place to wander. In addition to the ruins of a church bombed in 1965 by the US of Americans (the ruins are kept as evidence of this “war crime”), we were able to see fishing boats of various sizes and types. There were also some small huts on poles in the river, attached to them were large fishing nets that could be lowered and raised. To reach these huts the locals use small round boats like coracles to paddle out to them.

Continuing along we came to the market. This is primarily a fish market, where fish of all sizes were for sale. The stock was very fresh, we saw some being offloaded from boats. There were also shellfish, crabs, and frogs(!). We didn’t like what we saw them doing to the frogs, and won’t go into detail here. There were also people selling fresh meat, we saw one lady butchering a pig. Actually, the whole market seems to be populated by women, buyers and sellers.

At The Market
At The Market

After lunch (not at the market) we ventured further down the river. We were heading to a bridge which we had seen from the unspectacular bridge near our guesthouse. The bridges are lit up at night, with changing colours from blue to green, orange, purple, etc, and the one we wanted to see a bit closer was a suspension bridge and it looked great lit up. It took us a while to get there, but it was worth it. So having seen it, taken photos, and rest taken, we headed back to our guesthouse with the intention of hailing the first taxi we saw. We didn’t see a taxi. Kudos to Kraut, she did all that walking in jandals!

We liked Dong Hoi. It is a pity more travellers don’t spend time there. The locals were friendly, if not a bit surprised to see us. A lot of them would call out “hello” upon seeing us. This was usually followed by “what is your name?”. We guess this is the stock phrase they learn in school. It wasn’t only kids doing this, adults did it all the time, even those riding past on scooters.

The Boat, The Hut, The Net

The next morning we got the next train. We were lucky as the night before the owners of our guesthouse kindly booked our tickets online, and didn’t charge us more than the website. We got the last two seats together. At the station they announced the train would be on track two, but made us wait next to track one. Once the train had come to a stop we had to walk across track one to the train and step up into the carriage. The platform was on the other side of the train so it was quite a big step.

Most travellers go from the north to Hue (old tombs) or the very touristy Hoi An. Neither really appealed to us so we skipped them.

The scenery was similar to the previous leg, but this time we got some lovely views of the sea and the desserted coastline. There were some great looking beaches with no-one on them. They looked like there was no road access, but imagine a boat anchored just off the beach for a night or two. Don’t tell anyone, they will go and drop plastic. Along the way we also crossed what was the border between North and South Vietnam, as determined after the first Indochina war.

We arrived at our destination, Quang Ngai, at about 1630. We were here because stopping here allowed us to keep to the criteria listed at the top. Before doing anything else we bought tickets on the next day’s train. With that out of the way, we undertook the 700 m walk to our hotel. There isn’t a lot to see in Quang Ngai, apart from the My Lai Memorial, which is 12km away and closes at 1700. On the short walk from the station to our hotel nothing made us wish we were going to be there more than the one night we had booked.

Later on we went out to look for somewhere to get dinner. We walked for an hour, before settling on Lotteria, Vietnam’s half-baked version of McDonalds. We had eaten at another of their stores in Hanoi and it wasn’t very good, but in Quang Ngai there wasn’t any other option. At least, an option that didn’t make us fear spending the next train ride on the toilet. However, the chicken in Kraut’s chicken burger (they do have beef burgers on the menu but they appear to have run out of beef) was raw. It was deep fried, with batter, etc but it was definitely not cooked in the middle. They gave us another one but we weren’t keen to eat it. As far as we knew, Kiwi’s chicken was cooked. We could only hope so, there was another eight hour train ride in the near future.

But we did learn some things in our wanderings:

  • The people of Quang Ngai don’t eat out. There are no restaurants near our hotel. Maybe we walked in the wrong direction, who knows?
  • The people of Quang Ngai drink a lot of coffee. There were more coffee places in Quang Ngai than in Seattle, and that is saying something

We didn’t enjoy Quang Ngai. It was one of those days where you wonder why you bother travelling. But tomorrow is another day. In the morning we went shopping for food for our train ride. The city is charmless, but the people we met were friendly. The fruit was expensive but we can’t live on peanut butter and bread alone, dammit.

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