South East Asia part 9: Da Nang, VN – Da Lat, VN.
Things have been getting better for us as we track more south in Vietnam. The monotomy, heat, humidity and traffic have been thinning out with more varied landscape, smaller roads to take, cooler days and even quite a few rain showers. We’re not going to lie, we are finding Vietnam tough. Not because the cycling is difficult, or the climate is rough or the interactions with the people being distant, but rather because we don’t feel like we are getting any mental stimulation. The coast of Vietnam seems to all be the same and feels like it’s dragging on for ages. I don’t think that this is an inherent issue with Vietnam itself as a country. It is not a boring place by any means. Perhaps this problem stems from the fact that we haven’t spent so long in one country before. We’re coming up to our third month in Vietnam now and maybe we are longing for some drastic cultural change? Whatever the root cause of our moderate boredom, we are pretty sure it is only temporary.
Da Nang is a big city, with lots of hotels and high rise buildings. This was unexpected but it meant we could get some supplies from the big supermarket there whilst we stayed 2 nights with our Warmshowers hosts. Binh and Allesio (who we stayed with) were lovely and even gave us our own room with A/C, an absolute luxury. I bought some new shorts at the market for $5 without trying them on, despite a disappointed look from Josephine. I attempted to try them on, but as I pulled my trousers down there, in the center of the market, the sales lady (shocked to her very core) immediately stopped me and held the waist of the shorts around my neck as a measure of if they would fit me. I have never seen such a thing before. Anyway, when we returned to our room, they did fit, but they were as tight as my cycling lycra shorts. Oh well, good thing I don’t care much for my appearance.
The following day we cycling a short 30 km to the town of Hoi An. Josephine had been here before and it is a very popular tourist destination in Vietnam. It has a very well preserved old market town and it is probably best known for being a cheap place to get tailor made clothes. We stayed at a hostel for a few nights where the owner kindly gave us a private room for the price of a dorm bed. To our shock, a thunderstorm came in the entire afternoon and evening, the first rain we had experienced since Hanoi. This didn’t stop us though, and we donned our rain coats and went out after dark to see the pretty lights lining the streets. It was madness, like a music festival. There were literally 100 million people on the streets all wearing single use rain macs purchased from women on the street. We got some Banh Xeo (rice pancake) and returned to our room to watch a film. I used to think it was a bit sad at a hostel to hide in your room watching something but after cycling for so long and being outdoors almost all the time, there is nothing quite like sitting alone in your room away from people enjoying the A/C and relaxing.
Hoi An was a nice place and definitely worth a visit. We had the tastiest Banh Mi of our trip there too at a place called Madame Khanh’s. But after 2 nights we were keen to get back on the road and continue down towards Saigon. We opted for the back roads out of Hoi An through the rice paddies and villages rather than the main road. This turned out to be a nice idea, the roads were empty and it was pretty scenic with dark green rice paddies lined by palm trees. This changed drastically though from one minute to the other turning into a long straight road through sand dunes with nothing to see except the odd ancestral burial ground and pile of rubbish.
We camped that night at an empty beach side resort which we found from another cycling couple on Instagram (@rollingeast). The owner spoke perfect English and was happy for us to pitch our tent so long as he could take a photo of our passports to end to the police, #Vietnam. The beach homestay had a family of legendary dogs who kept us entertained all evening and in the morning. We woke up early to an incredible sunrise and hundreds of people walking/jogging/running up and down the beach. It looked like it was their morning exercise. We have seen this before in Vietnam, large groups of people gathering for communal exercise. I am not sure if it is a scheme put forward by the communist government, or just something that has been done for centuries. Either way it is quite intriguing to watch.
The cycling in Quang Ngai province was very enjoyable. There were plenty of small roads to take near the coast through lots of villages and paddy fields. All this with the backdrop of the hills characterising the Central Highlands in the distance. We were keen to find a nice spot to camp and I managed to find a beautiful, quiet beach on google maps just over a small sand dune. We pushed our bikes over the dune and into a small village full of people who genuinely looked like they had never seen a white person before. We took a tiny track through the centre of the village down a steep sand bank to the beach. It was perfect, blimming hard work to get to, but perfect. Most of the village came down throughout the course of the evening to swim and many of them came over to investigate our bikes, stove and tent. We had to put the tent up early before dark as it looked like it was definitely going to rain. It didn’t rain in the end.
After nightfall and a yoga session and swim later, we cooked up some grub and Josephine went down to the water to wash up. As I was tidying up camp in the dark, a woman squatted alone next to me, gazing at me intently and touching all our stuff. It looked like she was looking for something. I pointed at a pair of shoes a few meters away which someone had left, assuming she was looking for them. She skipped over, picked them up and threw them at me. Hmm, I guess a breakdown in communication. The crazy lady went down to the water and squatted next to Josephine who was oblivious to her existence. Josie later told me the lady tapped her on the shoulder to which she jumped and turned around, illuminating the ladies face and toothless grin with her head torch. It sounded like something out of a horror film, and quite funny to hear.
Our evening got even worse when a lady and a man came down with a torch and told us that we were not allowed to camp on the beach. The lady spoke perfect English, thankfully and was very polite about it. She explained foreigners were not allowed to camp in Vietnam and no-one in the village was registered to allow foreigners to stay at their houses. We had to go to a guesthouse which was 12 km away on the busy highway. Unable to accept our arguments and protest, we reluctantly packed everything away and pushed our bikes back up what I can only describe as a cliff. The policeman and the lady returned to help, with the entire village, but they didn’t really do much. We eventually got back to the highway and found the Nha Nghi (guesthouse) that the lady had told us to go to. Luckily, she had rang ahead and organised the price so we didn’t have to partake in any annoying bargaining. A very frustrating evening but thankfully the guesthouse owner gave us some food when we arrived, some jack-fruit and 2 boiled sweet potatoes.
We continued south into Binh Dinh province and to a small village called Nhon Hoi with a quiet, cozy beach hostel. It was a quant little place with a bay surrounded by fishing boats. We had a few days off and the hostel allowed us to camp on their balcony for less than $1 each which was a bargain. Unfortunately, the sea was extremely polluted as the villagers seemed to use the ocean as one big rubbish bin. Every day we saw people walking out of their front doors and throwing plastic bags of rubbish into the sea. No-one cared at all. Despite this we went for a night time snorkel using our solar powered Luci light as a dive light. It worked well and we saw an array of strange creatures including a 1.5 meter long sea cucumber. We also ate sea urchin for dinner one night, which was surprisingly tasty, even Josie liked it!
A few days previously I had bought a large knife/cleaver for opening coconuts. It was one of the best purchases I have made in a long time. Now I can open a coconut in a matter of seconds and we add the coconut milk and shavings to our rice porridge every morning, it’s great. Speaking of rice porridge, what is surprisingly hard to find in Vietnam, is rice! It isn’t sold everywhere as you would expect. It is only sold at huge supermarkets or small roadside shops called Dai Ly Gao (Rice agents). Like almost everything in Vietnam, these are not open between the hours of 12 and 4 as the Vietnamese have their afternoon lunch break and “siesta”. I am not kidding, everything closes down. If we haven’t had our lunch yet and it reaches 12 o-clock, we’re f***ed. I am warning you now, if you ever plan to cycle tour Vietnam, make sure you have a big lunch before 11:30 otherwise you will spend hours trying to find somewhere to get food.
We passed through the town of Quy Nhon where we spent the morning at a beach bar drinking coffee and swimming. This town was really nice. It had everything you need and was the perfect amount of busy. It also had nice views of the surrounding hills and a huge beach. It was definitely a place I could have considered staying for a while longer, but we didn’t. We camped on a beach a few hours south of it and had a wonderful nights sleep in the tent for the first time in months. Even with the rain cover on. Believe it or not, we also managed to camp again the next night! We squeezed out a 110 km day (which is a big day for us) and found a beautiful spot on the beach near a shrimp farm. No-one bothered us AND no-one rang the police. It was very quiet and we cooked up a tasty dinner and had another great sleep. It might not make sense to all, but our spirits are greatly lifted after having a good camp. Nothing is more demoralizing then camping in a dirty, loud place and sleeping terribly.
The road the next morning was absolutely beautiful. It hugged the coast of the far South-Eastern corner of Phu Yen province and gave us some amazing cliff-top views of sheltered bays full of fishing boats as well as some nice downhills on empty roads. The previous night Josephine and I had found a small island off the coast of a peninsula which apparently had some really good snorkeling. We even read that you could rent snorkels from the resort on the island. Having done all our research and brimming with excitement we headed off the main road 20 km to the end of the peninsula to spend a day or two on this tiny island. Or so we thought.
We arrived in the village around 11 am. We went to 1 of the 2 guesthouses in the village and were greeted by a horribly rude woman. She told us a price of 170 k. Playing the game, we tried to haggle her down to 140. “NO!”, she shouted, and walked away and started sweeping the porch. We had never experienced anything like that before, and subsequently left. If she had been polite about it we would have of course paid the 170k, we were just playing the haggling game. But she was so rude about it we didn’t want to give her the time of day. The kid at the next place was a lot friendlier, and we got a room for 170k. We packed a bag ready for an afternoon on the island and went into the village in search of food…at 12:30 pm…big mistake. There was no food and no-one at all willing to help us. The people in this village either shouted at us, stared at us, or laughed in our faces. Eventually I found a place to get some instant noodles for an extortionate price. After being semi-satisfied (Josephine only had a mango for lunch) we went down to where the boat left to the island. 2 men were there playing games on their phones and pretty much completely ignored us. 1 woman was willing to try and talk to us over google translate and told us if we waited an hour, we could get the boat for free. Out of no-where someone handed me a phone with someone on the other end who could speak English (this happens A LOT in Asia). The guy on the other end said the boat would cost us $20 EACH! For a 900 meter boat journey! I told him that was far too much money and he said “okay”, and hung up. No-one bothered helping us anymore so we returned to our guesthouse (after being pointed at and laughed at by some more fat children) and decided we would ditch this “island excursion”, leave our guesthouse, and head the 20 km back to the main road.
Not everything goes as planned, and despite our research online about this island, it didn’t materialise as we had hoped. Luckily we hadn’t paid for the room yet so we just packed up our stuff and left. We even cycled straight past the 9 year old girl who organised our room and she didn’t even look at us, just stayed glued to her phone screen. Fortunately for us, we found some food near the highway and a cheap guesthouse for the night where we washed our clothes and met the best dogs of the trip so far (see photo). The boy at the guesthouse was super friendly and made a huge effort to try and speak English with us. It is such a mixed bag of people in Vietnam. We have met some incredibly friendly people and some absolute animals.
We did a short day the following day and found a camp on a hill overlooking a bay right outside the city of Nha Trang. We also lucked out with our lunch eating a delicious vegetarian meal for under $2. If you are in Vietnam look out for signs that say Com Chay, it means “vegan rice” and there is an incredible variety of dishes to be had, and all for so cheap! That same day Josephine spotted some hanging bags of dark green fluids outside a seaside shack. I knew exactly what they were and turned around to have a look. They were bags of microalgae being grown as food for shellfish larvae. It was an oyster hatchery where oysters are spawned and the larvae are reared until they are big enough to place outside in the bay, grown to adulthood and then harvested and sold at markets. For those that don’t know I did my PhD on this kind of thing so I was very interested to see how they did things there. It was an incredibly basic facility but they still seemed to have a huge output of algae food and oysters.
We only had 15 km to do the next day through the city of Nha Trang to get to the bus station. We didn’t want to spend any time in Nha Trang as we would be coming back here in 3 weeks with Josephine’s family. Also, we were getting fed up with the hot humid weather and had decided we would go up to the town of Dalat in the Central Highlands up at 1500 meters asl. Unfortunately, I was unable to cycle up the hill due to my bike gear situation and Josephine was more than happy to get a bus up the hill. It was only 150 km so we wouldn’t be missing out on too much. We rocked up to the bus station with a pre-booked bus ticket and the staff took one look at our bikes and said “no”. We were used to this and simply smiled and said, “We will make it work, don’t worry!”. “NO.”, we were told again. Obviously, in the end it worked and we got both our bikes on the bus without any issues whatsoever. We were even helped with translating by a lovely elderly man. Again, an example of the extreme differences in temperament of the Vietnamese people. One individual can be horrible and the next an absolute legend. Vietnam is as mad as a bag of frogs.