Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Facing North, Heading South

The recently discovered Hang Son Doong in Vietnam are the world's largest caves. At more than 200m high, 150m wide and 5km long, the cave is so big it has its own river, jungle and climate. Oxalis Adventures is the only qualified company to take people inside the cave and their tours look incredible so I will pencil this one in on my return to Vietnam. There are quite a few other beautiful caves to explore in mid Vietnam and I decided that I wanted to go check some of them out.

There are two major stops to go exploring the great caves in Vietnam, Dong Hoi and Phong Nha. Phong Nha is near what looks like a great National Park. I decided to book a train ticket to Dong Hoi and grabbed a room at the Buffalo Lodge which is next to a river that looked decent. I was excited to have the Vietnam train experience and get Spelunking (the exploration of caves, especially as a hobby.). I had printed out my ticket at the hotel, grabbed a taxi and arrived at the Da Nang train station with plenty of time to spare.

Two trains had pulled into the station a few minutes apart. There were no digital board displaying arrivals and departures and announcements were only in Vietnamese, yippeee! I then asked the lady at security who checked my ticket when I arrived, which train was mine? She pointed to the closest one on track 1. I left the waiting area and asked the worker checking our tickets as we wandered to the platform which train was mine? He pointed to track 1. I found car number 7 and asked the porter who was checking my ticket as I boarding, is this the right train?. He gave me a bored "this one is good". Cool cool cool, Dong Hoi here I come. With all that I found my seat, stowed my bag and settled in for what should have been a nice 4 hour ride to Hoi An. I was facing North, the direction we were heading and looking around at the crowd of people settling into their seats. The train lurched and we started going South. Shit! Shit! Shit!

Maybe my sense of direction was off and we were actually heading north. Maybe I was sitting backwards. All rays of hope was dashed when the Ticket Porter, the same little Fu**er who said I was on the right train, came through to check tickets. When he got to me I knowingly handed him my ticket. His eyes widened and hae gave me a loud "oh nooooo" and then hurried, with my ticket, to another porter working the train from the other end. They both looked at the ticket and pointed at me.  Shit!Shit!Shit!Shit! They were talking loud enough so that within 3 minutes everyone on the train knew that I was the dumb tourist on the wrong train. There were lots of concerned looks and stares so I just waved. A few people smiled and waved back. What else was I going to do.

My seat buddy spoke a bit of English and was helpful, thankfully This train was heading to Saigon and the Porter wanted me to pay the difference in fares. No was an easy answer. I was not taking a 17 hour train ride back to Saigon. I said I would get off at the next station and find a train back to Da Nang. It confused the porter and he did his Walkie Talkie thing. In a few minutes he said that the next train back, from where ever the hell I was going to be, was at 9:00 pm. OK, my wait would not be awful, about 5 hours. With that settled there was nothing else to do. I sat back and watched the green Vietnam countryside roll by. Picturesque rice fields with cone hatted farmers toiling with brutish Water Buffalo could not have been any more cliche or peaceful.

About an hour later we were pulling into whatever small town Vietnam I was now going to launch from. Porter boy gave me a smile with the "OK get off the train here tourist boy" look. We pulled into the station, I jumped off and walked passed locals giving me curious and somewhat concerned looks. I could read the "what is the tourist doing here" in all of their faces.

The station was small but modern enough. Surprisingly there were no less that 12 clean, golf shirted taxi drivers from the same company huddled in a mass and yes they were waiting for me. Porter boy obviously called ahead because the girl coordinating the little group of taxi driving misfits looked at me a said "Da Nang?"  Hell that is not a bad idea but I did not want to go back to Da Nang. So I responded with Hoi An?, a small popular town about 25 KM from Da Nang. An hour and $10 later I was being dropped of in the Old Quarter of Hoi An. The day started with me heading north about 300 KM. I took an hour train ride followed by an hour taxi ride and ended up 25 KM south of where I started. Yes sir, Living the Fu**ing Dream!!

Hoi An's old quarter is a well preserved ancient port and trading town. It was not the worst place in the world to end up. I found a coffee shop, booked a room and chilled for a bit thinking about how my day went. One of the young coffee girls was keen to practice English so she sat with me for 10 minutes and gave me the lay of the land. This place was going to be a cool little stop considering the way the day started. Now I just need to find my hotel and the local Expat Bar.

The old town is easy enough to navigate and the Hoi Pho hotel was about 10 minutes from the coffee shop. The Hoi An Sports Bar was a 5 minute walk from my hotel. After an hour I had found a good coffee shop, my hotel and the local expat hang out. Behind the bar was a massive dude with a Santa Claus beard and could have easily been a nasty biker given the chance. Turns out to be a 60s throw back who lives in Thailand but works for 2 months stretches at this bar, which is owned by a buddy. He had long interesting stories about his life and to his credit stopped drinking 10 years ago.

 An assortment of local color wandered in and out as I sat and took it all in. Another American regaled me with stories about how he was the biggest pot dealer in California in the 70's. He was arrested a few times but never did any time. There was an Air Ambulance Nurse from Australia who decided I needed to learn the rules of Aussie Rules Football, which was massive in this bar. I stopped in for a quick beer and ended up staying a few hours. Where any of these guy telling the truth? Who cares. At least they were not boring and predictable.

Hoi An is also about the night lights. The entire Old Town including the bridges and river boats illuminate creating a feeding frenzy for the camera and cell phone masses. Seriously, its really beautiful. After such a long time in the pub getting my camera was not a real good option. Google has some great pictures, CLICK HERE and have a look.

The night market had great food options as expected. Long rows of carts serving up the standard street fare. The smells and sights creating a great sensory experience. I was about to buy and dig into some good looking chicken and rice when a TAC sight caught my eye. The sign was half hidden behind the chicken stand I was drooling over and when I took one step right there it was, TACOS. How am I not going to devour a few Vietnamese tacos. The special of the night was that if you eat 2 you get a third for free. Let's review. I had not eaten all day having started in Da Nang at 10:00 am. I had just spend time in a pub swilling quality draft and now I was standing in front of a Tacos stand offering free food. Challenge accepted.

Through it all, Hoi An turned out to be a great little 3 day stop of doing absolutely nothing. The hotel had a book swap so I picked up The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney in exchange for Big Sur by Jack Kerouac which I picked up in Cambodia. An odd read itself but it is always an adventure with Jack. I am a bit lazy with reading, averaging about a book every two weeks right now. I do have quite a bit of down time so I am going to have to challenge myself and up my reading game.

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