Taste of Hon Son

View of Lay Son pier
View of Lay Son pier

After a couple of lazy days and nights on Nam Du, Loc and I decided it was time to move on. The obvious thing was to head back to the mainland but Loc had a hankering to check out the island of Hon Son, the first Superdong stop on the way back to Rach Gia. A snap decision made, quickly followed by a change to our ferry tickets and we were at the pier in time to grab the 10.15am Superdong departure.

Vendors in Lay Son
Vendors in Lay Son

Earlier that morning, we decided to tackle one last activity, an ascent to the highest peak on Nam Du island for the iconic view from the lighthouse and hopefully some nice snaps. It’s quite a steep ride on the little motorbike, particularly as it had to carry Loc and I and all our luggage. The last 150 metres were just too much, and I rode the bike while Loc finished on foot.  I rounded the corner to the small military base that looks after the lighthouse hoping to find a parking spot from which we could scope the lighthouse and views. Instead I was greeted by a stern faced chap, military of course, who directed me to turn back immediately. Loc caught up, confirmed that the area was off limits due to some operational reason, and that was that. Dawdling a bit for some miracle to occur, we eventually made our way down to a lower summit and got off a few so-so shots. A quick check of the clock and we made a sprint down to the pier to board the Superdong for the short ferry ride to Hon Son.

Superdong ticket office
Superdong ticket office

In contrast to Nam Du, Hon Son is just one large rock of an island jutting out of the Gulf of Thailand; not the collection of pebbles sprayed about at the end of the line that is Nam Du. Because of its monolithic distinctiveness, Hon Son is recognisable for some distance as the Superdong approaches. Docking at the pier at the main town of Lai Son, there is usual scuttle of folk boarding and disembarking, with the usual frenzy but also with a surprising amount of order. Within a few moments, Loc has made contact with the local fixer, also a Mr Sau, a motorbike has been secured and a recommendation for accommodation gathered.

Young lads at the market
Young lads at the market

We lingered a while with iced coffees, at the huddle of tarpaulin covered shops where the pier meets the town proper. It was the middle of the day and no one appeared to be in a hurry to get anywhere soon. The town of Lai Son spreads away from the pier in both east and west directions, constrained by the ocean out front and the monolith of rocky mountain that appears to take up just about all of the land mass of the island. All residential area is limited to a sprinkle of small villages dotted along the hem of the island; apart from a couple of small gardens close to the villages, all economic activity revolves solely around fishing.  From what we could gather, electricity on Hon Son is similar to Nam Du in that it is on for restricted periods in the evening. However part of the island was completely cut off from electricity due to some works, including the main town, which meant that you needed access to a generator. Anyway, this is a working island, there is nothing here yet that approaches anything in the way of tourist infrastructure, and we were happy to be on Hon Son for that reason.

Fish drying, everywhere fish
Fish drying, everywhere fish

Finally, we decided to check out the accommodation recommendation, a small guesthouse of two rooms perched above the town; the bed covers were a disturbingly bright candy red, but bearable, the windowless chamber below our room bearing a karaoke sign was rather foreboding. In the absence of any further information about the island we begrudgingly decided to take the room.

A quick freshen up and we were on the motorbike for a quick look around the island. The island isn’t big – only about 4 or 5 kms from point to point – so we figured doing a loop on the ring road shouldn’t take too long. First stop was a small village to the west of Lai Son, where we poked around its sheltered main thoroughfare, and purchased crabs at a small vendor that was boxing them for shipment to the mainland aboard the next Superdong.

bai bo umbrellas
bai bo umbrellas

A short hop from this town we stumbled upon a smudge of a beach, bai bo. On the white sand next to a large rock were a couple of beach parasols; a white table and seats sheltered under each of them. Neat as a pin the scene was irresistible. We trundled down from the ring road to find a small restaurant servicing the beach. An accommodation block was being built further along the beach but all the family running the place could offer now was their karaoke room. After they cooked our crabs and we had a nap in the hammocks, Loc and I decided that bai bo was too nice to pass up. So we moved our digs from the main town out to the beach. A couple of beds were rolled into the karaoke room and we got to stay in amongst an interesting array of lighting and sound systems for about 150,000 VND including meals.

Ba Nam Hoang
Ba Nam Hoang

Over the course of the afternoon and next day, we got to see and understand how the family manages their restaurant and patch of beach, which they clean meticulously. Only females were working, some three generations, led by the octogenarian matriarch Ba Nam Hoang. The property had already been in her family for three generations, and is currently managed by her eldest son and daughter-in-law with help from extended family. All her three sons at sea for extended periods with large fishing boats, hence why there were only women in the kitchen. The building of the accommodation block a little down the beach was evidence that this family was going ahead. All of this development seemed to be about getting the youngest members of the family into decent education options on the mainland.

Cleaning nets
Cleaning nets

Over the course of the afternoon and into the evening, quite a few locals and government bureaucrat types dropped in for a drink or a feed. Indeed there were large groups feasting on shellfish and hotpots in the evening. Others would gather around charcoal burners on the sand having barbequed fish, deconstructed cardboard boxes serving as table mats.  Later at night, groups of teenagers would huddle together in the darkness sipping on sugary drinks, sneaking the odd cigarette. It looked to be the “in” place for the youngsters to meet, and they’d dare each other to come over to me to swap an english word with me.

Plucky lad on the pier
Plucky lad on the pier

Like on Nam Du, the restaurant here isn’t ala carte in the sense that you turn up and order off a menu; you ring ahead and arrange what you’d like in order to give the staff enough time to collect the goods from the market, or you bring it in yourself like we had with the delicious crabs. Without a stable electricity supply, you just cant keep fresh produce on hand.

DSCF2504In between swims and feasting at bai bo, we managed a couple of circumnavigations of the island. There was one other beach, bai bang, but it was not well looked after and just had a shabby collection of thatch huts. The rest of the shoreline is rugged rocky coastline. The collection of villages around the island all have small fishing fleets; those who aren’t out on boats are engaged in cleaning and renewing nets. Indeed whole piers are covered with bundles of nets waiting for the teams of workers to unroll them and unpick them of the detritus that collects when the nets are dragged around the ocean floor.

DSCF2446

Nam Du Island dreaming

View from the top of main Nam Du island
View from the top of main Nam Du island

So one of the aims of this trip to Vietnam was to travel to a relatively unexplored island off the 3,260 kms of the country’s coastline. The weather had foiled my earlier attempts to travel to Ly Son island which is located off the central coastline so I rearranged my travel but was still keen to fit in some island travel. After returning to Saigon for a few days, I decide that a trip out to the little visited Nam Du islands was the perfect destination.  My friend Loc was up in the Mekong Delta visiting his in-laws, and after hearing of my intentions, he decided to meet me part of the way and accompany me out for the island excursion.

Ngu-beach1Nam Du islands is actually a cluster of 23 islands located off the coast of southern Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand. They are located about 40 kms south east of Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s hot new tourist destination. Nam Du is located perfectly to leverage off transport routes to Phu Quoc, but at this stage it is a relatively unknown destination both within Vietnam, let alone outside. As such I thought it would be a perfect place to visit, before it gets trampled by the hordes that will eventually come.

Raw fish salad - goi trinh ca
Raw fish salad – goi ca trich

Getting out to Nam Du does involve a bit of travel legwork. A six hour bus ride from Saigon out through the Mekong Delta to the port city of Rach Gia before hopping onto a two and a half hour Superdong ferry ride out to Nam Du. There are plenty of buses departing Saigon at all hours day and night for the drive to Rach Gia, but as the daily ferry leaves once a day only at 7.30am, doing the whole trip from Saigon to Nam Du in one go means doing a bus ride in the wee hours of the night to make the ferry connection. With some pretty horrific stats around night bus rides I wasn’t keen on this option. Instead Loc and I decide that we’d meet up in Rach Gia mid afternoon, stay over night and hit the Superdong the next morning.

Nam Du sunrise
Nam Du sunrise

The sleeper bus from Saigon to Rach Gia on Phung Trang busline is a pretty comfortable ride despite the length of the journey. The berths are almost flat vinyl beds, propped up at the head so that you can take in the pop music videos that are streamed on the screens at not inconsiderable volume levels. Anyway the coaches are relatively new, well maintained (all guests must take their shoes off and place them in plastic bag before assuming their positions) and mercifully I didn’t find it too difficult to sleep through much of the journey.

Superdong docking
Superdong docking

Arriving in Rach Gia, I quickly find our hotel, the Kiet Hong, with the aid of a scooter taxi – xe om. The Kiet Hong is a great little place for an overnight stop in Rach Gia, particularly if you’re catching the Superdong to Phu Quoc or Nam Du the next day as it’s located about 100 metres from the ferry port, location, location, location. For 220,000VND, a tad under $15, we have a large clean room with a balcony with sweeping views of the sea. I poke around around the area before Loc arrives in town. We head out for a superb meal of raw fish salad, goi ca trich, a salad of little herring-like fish, raw onion, coconut strips and peanuts dressed with lots of fresh lime. The salad is served with sides of green banana, tomato, shallot and pineapple – rolled up in fresh rice paper rolls and a couple of dipping sauces. It certainly was a treat. We head back to the hotel and sit on the balcony taking in the warm evening breeze and cacophony of frog croaks in the dark below us.

Church on Hon Tre
Church on Hon Tre

Assembling early at the dock the next morning, we join the huddle of mainly locals ready to board the Superdong 1 for the trip out to Nam Du.  After kicking around the dock for a few minutes it dawns on me I will be the only non-Viet person on the ferry. And in all likelihood the only non-Viet on Nam Du.

The Superdong boat looks relatively sturdy, and in contrast with their cousins doing the Saigon-Vung Tau route, I hadn’t heard of any boat sinkings doing the trip to Phu Quoc or Nam Du. I quickly googled the Superdong specs to find that vessels leaving Rach Gia have a speed of 30 knots/hour, can carry 306 passengers and 8 tonnes of cargo, are modern, luxurious and that each compartment contains karaoke systems. Extraordinary.

Main port at An Son
Main port at An Son

Anyway we board the boat, stuff luggage into whatever space is available, introduce ourselves to fellow passengers, and settle in for the departure. It’s not long after leaving port that the large screen TV starts pouring out a stream of music videos, and sensing the possibility of better options elsewhere, Loc and I head out of the downstairs compartment for fresh air upstairs. For the next two and half hours, the Superdong purrs along the relatively flat expanse of sea, harsh shards of sunlight bouncing off the mirror-like surface, making a couple of scheduled stops at Hon Tre and Hon Son before arriving at the main port town of Nam Du, An Son. The port itself is quite small with docking for no more than 15 boats, many more gaily painted fishing vessels are dotted around at anchor nearby in the harbor.  A row of small restaurants and a couple of fish vendors greet you as you make your way off the pier, before entering into the small town itself.

Local relaxing at coffee shop near the pier
Local relaxing at coffee shop near the pier

On disembarking we are assaulted by the usual gaggle of touts, except here very few approach me as I suspect nobody speaks English. I spot one other westerner making his way across the pier, heading back to the mainland by return ferry trip. Loc and I each had a couple of snippets of information for accommodation options on the main island. After taking our time to relax with an iced coffee – one always relaxes first before lurching forward to make a decision regarding accommodation – we checked over a guesthouse recommended by one of the few bloggers to have traveled here. Located down a dingy alley, we both decide that this place was just too much like an incarceration facility rather than a hospitality offering. After checking out one of the two nha nghi offerings in town, Loc suggested we follow up a lead he had about a guesthouse on the ring road some 6 km out of An Son.

Phong Vu guesthouse
Phong Vu guesthouse

By this stage Loc had secured a rental motorbike from the local fixer Mr Sau, who had sidled up to Loc when we disembarked. The out of town guesthouse was also Mr Sau’s recommendation.  After a short hop on the motorbike we found the Phong Vu Nam Du guesthouse, and while it was fairly raw and still undergoing some development work, it was head and shoulders above what was on offer in town. Its nine room block of cabana’s, brightly adorned in lurid green, the block is located only metres from the water’s edge. With tourist infrastructure practically non-existent, the Phong Vu is a gem.

Paradise beach - bai cay men
Paradise beach – bai cay men

Over the next couple of days, Loc and I explore the small island by motorbike. The main island, like all the others in the Nam Du group is karst like, jutting strikingly out of the Gulf of Thailand, and rimmed mainly by rugged coastline; rock falls are common place on the ring road. There’s only one noticeable sand beach on the main island and it is a peach, bai cay men. There are no accommodation or eating facilities there, the lady who owns and runs the collection of shelters and hammocks is developing it, soon, and currently only offers drinks to the few souls who make their way here. No doubt it’s popular with Vietnamese crowds on the weekends, but the day we visit, there’s only one other small group of travelers to enjoy the super beach with.

View from our boat to the beach at Hon Mau
View from our boat to the beach at Hon Mau

The next day we team up again with the young couples we met at bai cay men for what is really the only out and out tourist pursuit on the island, a boat trip to some outer islands. Its a pleasant day with a spot of fishing – no luck – some snorkelling – no coral reef – and some swimming. Because most of the young Viets had suffered seasickness during the boat ride, the bulk of day is spent parked on a nice beach on Hon Mau. Lunch is a rustic affair of barbequed small fish and soup; lounging in hammocks the order of the day. As the sun begins disappearing behind a couple of the island peaks, we hauled anchor for the return boat ride, a hesitant affair for some. The boat crew rustle up a delicious rice porridge soup, or chao, with a little chunks of sea urchin.

Lunch on the boat trip
Lunch on the boat trip

And that’s really it for touristic type activities. No doubt the weekends get busier, but the Superdong can only bring so many tourists over, and there really isn’t much available in the way of accommodation. The development taking place around the harbour foreshore suggests that things are on the move. But for now, the main part of a visit to Nam Du seems to be to chill in a hammock. Oh, and eat some very fresh seafood.

Barbequed clams
Barbequed clams

Food on Nam Du island is an interesting affair. The staff at the Phong Vu guesthouse could and would prepare food for us, as long as we purchased it at the couple of fruit and veg stalls in the market or the two seafood vendors at the pier. This arrangement appears to be the norm in the other accommodation places on the island. This probably best summarises where Nam Du is at with regard to approaching tourism and hospitality. And its not too bad now while numbers are a trickle. Not to say there was anything shabby about buying a kilogram of freshly caught swimmer crabs ($7) and taking them to a nearby restaurant for them to be cooked and served a long with a few dipping sauces for a meagre amount extra.

Seafood on sale at the pier
Seafood on sale at the pier

This very unstructured and informal approach to life is what I’ll probably take away most from Nam Du. That, and the karaoke that I got dragged into on our last night on the island. The karaoke was special and involved many of the extended member’s of the family that owned the guesthouse, some with untrained but very capable voices; others not so good but everyone is encouraged and warmly supported, songs plucked from YouTube on smartphones plugged into a good sized amplifier. If you do get invited to a family karaoke, you’ll love it, but have something up your sleeve that’s more recognisable than Elvis Presley’s My Way. The host was a really good sport by singing the duet with me.

Crab and beer by the pier
Crab and beer by the pier

Saigon’s wholesale flower market – Cho Ho Thi Ky

Packets of roses
Packets of roses

Whenever I travel I like to see and get a feel for everyday activities. Like where the food comes from, how the transport system works, what a local market or supermarket looks like, that sort of thing. So I decided to travel out and have a look at Saigon’s wholesale flower market.

Cho Ho Thi Ky is located in District 10, just a short distance from the Saigon’s central area District 1. Like most wholesale markets in the west, it operates in the very early hours of the morning. However its proximity to the centre of a bustling city is unusual. As such the trucks that bring the flowers to the market from the market garden city of Dalat are restricted from entering on mass until until late at night. In any case this suits the operating arrangements for a wholesale market.

DSCF2658At 2 am I woke up a taxi driver from among the posse of Vinasun taxis parked outside my hotel. Not sure if it was the sleep but he found it difficult to register my request for a ride to the flower market. In anycase he was happy for the fare, despite breaking the snooze he’d probably planned until at least later in the morning.

Gladioli being prepped
Gladioli being prepped

After a short drive we arrived at what was the main street alongside the market. There wasn’t a lot of activity that I could initially see apart from a gaggle of blokes watching late night football so the driver and I agreed that I’d take a short stroll around the block and meet him in 15 minutes or so for the drive back to the hotel.

I passed a few street food stalls that were still open, and because it was after 2 am I had an inkling that something was happening. DSCF2646Rounding the corner from the drop off point, and a little weary for the hour, I staggered into a warren of alley ways that was abuzz; alive with flower traders, general hands and motorbike riders going about the business of transforming large volumes of product into smaller packets to be digested by retailers, and in turn consumers, across Saigon in the following days.

There were many hands at work here. Guys were unpacking the large boxed deliveries and prepping them into smaller bunches; trimming ends, de-thorning roses and the like. Large plastic buckets were being filled with water for the same bunches, and then emptied into the street when orders were moved. DSCF2681Trolley boys would relocate bunches from one stall to another to balance out supply and demand issues. Traders were booking deals, after phone calls; some with earnest frowns, others smiling as the notes were scribbled into ledgers. Small and large loads were strapped to motorbikes, and with a shout and throttle, riders would dodge and weave their way out of the market. DSCF2654All the while, platters of food and drink were whisked around the market to sustain the workers through the night. And there were partners and other family members assisting, including a scattering of young children.

I saw a lot of busy people; most smiling and joking with each other as they worked. Others just too busy. DSCF2619All along my walk through the market, I didn’t see anyone that wasn’t engaged. I suppose it was the time of the day, or night, however unlike other over serviced sectors in Vietnam, there was no malaise or boredom here, everyone was focused on their role.

DSCF2676As I moved through the market, there was a degree of astonishment that a white tourist would be there on their turf. Not enough to throw them or disengage them from their work. And as I lingered at stalls, smiles would break out, workers would pose or prod someone into a photo, and hands would be offered in the friendliest of gestures.

DSCF2612I couldn’t actually gauge the size of Cho Ho Thi Ky, nor the volumes that the traders move in an evening. But for a city of eight million, it has to be substantial. It’s hard to compare market’s infrastructure to a western style wholesale market where typically you’d see a purpose built facility located an appreciable distance from the city centre. Cho Ho Thi Ky is spread, or more appropriately confined, to a couple of tight street blocks, with small alley ways providing the usual relieve and occasional overflow that is typical of this city.

DSCF2707Cho Ho Thi Ky works quite well in the haphazard and jangled way that things do in Saigon. Sadly, with the current trend of replacing traditional markets in Vietnam with “modern” supermarkets (French multinational Carrefour is being fingered in this process), and with the general development pressures on Saigon’s inner urban, there will be a time when Cho Ho Thi Ky will be replaced, relocated, whatever. Unfortunately that will come with family relocations, and structural readjustments and cost increases that will see businesses swallowed up by larger holdings. DSCF2684I truly hope I’m wrong here but things seem to move quickly and in a callous way in this part of the country.

By the time I had arrived and stumbled into the market proper, the delivery trucks from Dalat had already disgorged their loads and fled to side streets. I caught a couple of the stragglers, close by the market. As I returned back to where the taxi was parked, an hour or so after I’d started my stroll, the driver literally leapt out of his car to greet me again, the small row of retail shops were busy getting their shopfronts ready for the days trade. Its really all you see of Cho Ho Thi Ky if you visit during the day.

DSCF2630I loved the vibe of this market, the smells and activity I was all too familiar with. I spent just over $7 on visiting the market, most of that on waiting time for the taxi. Good value.

Retail shop display
Retail shop display
Retail shop offering
Retail shop offering
Load delivered
Load delivered
Happy traders
Happy traders

Food, glorious food…and drink

Okay, so in my last blog I had food in the title, and completely omitted any mention of food in the narrative itself.  Let me make amends.

Couple in luurve
Couple in love

However….before talking about food, as I strolled around Hoi An I was gobsmacked by the amount of young couples holding hands, hugging each other tenderly, all the while posing for a couple of photographers following them. Hoi An’s old town is a stunning setting for photo shoots, so much so that couple’s make it the place for their wedding shoot. What tends to happen in Vietnam is that the couple intending to be married get all garbed up and have their wedding photos taken before the actual wedding. That way when the guest arrive at the reception marquees, a sprinkle of the wedding photos are there on easels to greet friends and family.  Apart from the young couples frolicking around town followed by the posse of camera guys, I came across a four wedding marquees the previous day out the return from my ride out over Cau Cua Dai. I stopped at one of the larger marquees to take a look, well actually it was the wall of noise from the sound system that stopped me.

Inside the wedding marquee
Inside the wedding marquee

I lingered a while secretly hoping for an invite, and as I pulled out my camera to get a few shots of guests, some fire works were set off in the tent. Nothing serious, just a couple of massive catherine wheels, inside the tent. If that wasn’t enough, one of them shot of a projectile across the marquee straight into the wedding party. They dodged it, and without a care in the world continued on with the toasts to the background of noise and music generated by a tower of amplifiers. I recall it was 3pm on a Thursday afternoon. DSCF1468A good time to have a wedding in Hoi An.

And now the food.

Cho Hoi An
Cho Hoi An

The Vietnamese are obsessed with food. They rise early and graze all day. And why not; with an abundant variety of tropical fruit from the Mekong delta, a bounty from the rice paddies and an extraordinary assortment of goodies from the seas around the country, the cuisine is a magical array of dishes that sustain the folk throughout the day and night. And while in the countryside the fare is somewhat simpler, in the cities the food obsessed younger generation seek out the best or latest versions of classic Viet dishes. The mobile app foody.vn lists over 36,000 eateries in Ho Chi Minh City alone. These include high end eateries, bakeries, buffets and of course street food stalls.

Reaching Out shopfront
Reaching Out shopfront – a charity providing work opportunities for disabled young folk in Hoi An

There are just some many different variations on dishes that I can’t possibly mention them all here in this blog. The basics we see in menus in Australia are just a snapshot of whats on offer. There’s countless varieties of soup based noodle dishes, grilled meats and crustaceans, steamed or grilled fish, squid and molluscs, stir fried everything, fresh noodle dumplings, steamed dumplings, baguettes stuffed with all manner of pates or omelet, braised or slowcooked meats and riverfish and salads combining lightly brined fruit with raw fish or steamed duck. There are also exotic dishes like the ducks blood porridge cum salad or roasted bush rats. The list goes on, and each dish has its distinct accompaniment be it a fish sauce or lime and pepper dip, a pungent shrimp paste, a chilli sauce, and more often than not, a plate of gorgeous salad greens and herbs. Or a combination of these items.

Mot's lotus, lemongrass and ginger tea
Mot’s lotus, lemongrass and ginger tea

Each region or city seems to have its own spin on many of the staple dishes. Many cities also have a range of specialty dishes that set it apart from other places in Vietnam. Hoi An is known especially for it’s Cao Lau, a noodle soup with grilled pork and wontons, and Banh Bao Banh Vac or White Rose, small delicate dumplings of shrimp or pork. There is almost a denomination of origin control over these dishes because they either have to be made by a select family or the water used in making the dish must come from a particular well.  You can see a good summary of food in Hoi An here.

Com Phan from Cho Hoi An
Com Phan from Cho Hoi An

In the 3 weeks or so spent in Vietnam, I’ve only been to eat in one restaurant, the fabulous Hokkaido Sachi in Saigon. Street food has been the staple for me and Hoi An is a gold mine for great food eaten by the curb in small red stools.  Most (I wont say all because I haven’t eaten at all of them) of the street side stalls sell just the one dish, be it a soup noodle dish of beef or fish, a salad of noodles, greens and grilled pork or a stuffed baguette. And when they run out, the stall closes. Invariably each stall opens at a specific time of the day, be it early morning, late morning, mid afternoon or evening. And if you are in search of a particular dish, you need to know when that vendor’s stall opens. And if the offering is good, get there on time and be prepared to wait.

Cho Hoi An food hall
Cho Hoi An food hall

In the old town of Hoi An itself, dining is really limited to restaurant fare, some of it very high quality such as the Mango Mango and Mango Rooms duet run by a Viet Khieu dude. Along the riverside itself is a series of very small stalls each with half a dozen tables serving either Mi Quang, fried noodles or Cao Lau. I had my first meal in Hoi An at one of these places. Whilst the Cao Lau was pretty average, the rats that were rustling around in the grass just a few feet away certainly made the meal memorable.

Banh Xeo
Banh Xeo

The other good option for food in Hoi An is in the food hall of the Cho, or market. Cho Hoi An is a traditional wet market that you see all other country selling freshly caught fish, frogs, eels and freshly killed meat of all sorts.  There’s also a healthy selection of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as the noodle that goes into Cao Lau. Inside the food hall of the market is about 20 or so vendors cooking up a storm from the early hours; the selection heavily favours local specialities like Cao Lau and Mi Quang, but I had great feeds of Banh Xeo, small coconut batter crepes stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts, and Com Phan, a rice dish topped with a selection of goodies like braised chicken legs, slow cooked pork, pickled vegetables and a bit of steamed squid. With the plate topped with a boiled egg, its a great little filler in the middle of the day.

Banh Canh Chua Ca from the stall at Tran Phu street
Banh Canh Cha Ca from the stall at Tran Phu street

By far the best meal I had in Hoi An is something that is found across the country, a sweet and sour fish and noodle soup, Banh Canh Cha Ca. Its a soup based around a light tomato flavoured fish stock, with some carrots for sweetness, loaded with noodles, bits of fish and cubes of fish paste and lashings of lemongrass and Vietnamese mint. Nothing stands out in the dish, its a nice balance where everything can stand on its on and still complement the other ingredients. Served with a crusty baguette to help get the soup down, and a couple of different chilli pastes and lime wedges. The whole package sets you back 40,000VND or about $2.50. I found the stall selling this dish in a side alley away from the old town and popped in a number of times to sample its one dish. How many times I saw western tourists stroll past this gem heading for the restaurant strip where, more often than not, they would get fleeced for substandard food at many times the price that I paid, in the mistaken believe that the food in these places is unhealthy. As I always do, I carefully watched the lady running the stall preparing the soup dish, and there is little doubt in my mind about the hygiene levels in these stalls.

Mrs Phuong shop
Mrs Phuong shop

Hoi An’s other claim to fame is the baguette’s served by Mrs Phuong at Banh Mi Phung. Since a visit by TV foodie, Anthony Bourdain, a couple of years, Mrs Phuong’s stall has been propelled into the must visit list of foodies that visit Hoi An. Mind you its also popular with the locals, so much so that Mrs Phuong has set up a new shop away from her earlier stall alongside the market. I like Mrs Phuong’s Banh Mi. There are a range of different selections available with toppings based essentially around a couple of different roasted meats and pates, some herbs, pickled vegies, spring onion, a few chillis and a rich, rich gravy. There’s also a super deluxe version with a fried egg on top. Anyone with a love for roast pork rolls will jump at this stuff, but what really sets these Banh Mi apart from others around the country, are the almost dainty little crusty torpedo shaped rolls that are used across Hoi An. Nothing like the big macho rolls they use in Saigon, and at about $1.20 each you’d easily be tempted to drop two in a sitting.

Bun Bo Hue
Bun Bo Hue

My last feed in Hoi An was another side street experience where I had a beef noodle soup redolent of the former capital city of Hue, Bun Bo Hue. Its a hearty feed of noodles and various chunks of beef, served in a rich red soup, the color signifying a fair dose of chilli in the broth. It was a great feed to send me off from Hoi An, literally on the tarmac of one of Hoi An’s busiest roads.

Food, bridges and food

View of Hoi An from Cau Cua Dai, the bridge over the Thu Bon river
View of Hoi An from Cau Cua Dai, the bridge over the Thu Bon river

Another day and its another excursion out of Hoi An town. Taking a scooter from the hotel, I head across the newly bridge across Hoi An’s river, the Thu Bon on the Cau Cua Dai. The bridge is an impressive structure towering above everything around and shows how sympathetically Hoi An merges into the countryside around it. The road heading south from the bridge is not yet complete turning to dirt as soon as you leave the bridge. I ride for 10 km on the dirt and gravel that is being prepared as base for the new tarmac, bumping into a road engineer, Mr Bao along the way. We talk for a bit and, whilst poking and prodding me during our chat, he tells me that the road will have a dual purpose when its completed in November.

Cau Cua Dai - going somewhere?
Cau Cua Dai – going somewhere?

Primarily it is being built to link Hoi An with cities further south, Tam Ky and Quang Ngai and from there to Highway 1, QL1, the major north-south route in Vietnam. Secondly it will service a string of luxury resorts and four Chinese casinos planned for development along this strip. I cant help thinking the latter is actually the main reason for the road and bridge.

I turn off the dirt track and head toward the beach and a couple of nameless villages (at least on google maps), where locals hide from the heat of the sun, mending fishing nets on porches. Around each house is a carefully tended garden with plots of vegetables, lemongrass and peanuts. Beyond the house yards is sand, acacias, pines, run down Chinese cemetery plots and rubbish, the blight of Vietnam. Above me a couple of MIG jets are dancing around the sky, adding a surreal note to my visit here.

Kids on bikes
Kids on bikes

Returning back to the Cua Dai bridge via the string of small villages along the coast ending at the fishing port at the mouth of the Thu Bon river. Just about everyone I meet greets me with a big “hello”, in particular the coming out of school in neat uniforms of blue pants or skirts and crisp white shirts. Many of them ride oversized bikes, hand me downs from older siblings. This is where the kids get their first taste of navigating through road traffic, a deft skill for when they graduate to scooters and motorbikes. I respond to all greetings, and stop and chat at every opportunity; its surprising what you can communicate even though language is a barrier. I stop and chat with an old chap caulking his coracle, the round fishing vessel you see all over Vietnam. Through a bit of gesturing he shows me the purpose of the vessel and reason for the caulking.

Caulking the coracle
Caulking the coracle

One greeting I am hesitant to respond to is yelled from a group of blokes sheltering in the shadows of a cafe. They usually come from drunks emboldened by liquor, and when they grab hold of you, bore you and poke you, and all too often put their hand for money. Or as happened on one earlier occasion, it was my wedding ring that became a target. Its never too forceful and easy enough to ward off, but it goes against the grain of all the wonderful people that I have met here. So normally I just nod or squeeze out a hello and continue on.

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Charms of Hoi An

Market vendors
Market vendors

Arriving into Danang on the train travelling up from Quang Ngai, I’d decided to try a new way of getting down to Hoi An. The usual method is to make the 30 km trip by taxi which will cost somewhere around 400,000 dong or about $25 AUD. Scrounging around the train station for someone to share the taxi will of course make it cheaper. However I’d heard about the local bus which makes a slower but more authentic trip, and its also much cheaper. The locals pay 18,000 dong or just over a dollar, although I’d heard that westerners were made to pay 50,000 dong. I don’t mind paying a westerners price, but what seems to galls the few tourists that take this option is the ticket arrangement for the ride; that is, no ticket is provided by the conductor on payment of the fare.

Wontons and noodles drying
Wontons and noodles drying

The ticket of course shows the real price, and without the ticket the bus company has no record of the traveller, and therefore the money is pocketed by the driver and bus conductor. When I got on the bus, the conductor quickly shepherds me to the very front of the bus where, I quickly realise, he can make his play out of views of the locals travelling on the bus. When it was my turn to pay, I pull out the correct fare from my pocket and hand it to him. He looks at the crumpled notes and starts muttering “money, money”. In reply I ask for a ticket, and smile. He sulks a bit and reluctantly accepts that the ruse is up; he turns and moves to the next passenger. This was one of the few good tips I have picked up from reading Tripadvisor.

Here follows the important, and somewhat run of the mill information about Hoi An.

Hoi An streets
Hoi An streets

Hoi An is one of the main tourist destinations in Vietnam. It’s a UNESCO historical site settled some 2000 years ago by the Cham people. It became an important trading points for spice and other commodities for Chinese merchants who began leaving their mark on the town from the 1500’s onwards. You can see plenty of evidence for this in the style of houses and meeting rooms in the old town along the water’s edge.

Hoi An riverfront
Hoi An riverfront

A small city of 120,000 people, Hoi An offers visitors many cultural highlights that can be taken in on walking tours of the Old Town. Day trips out to old Champa ruins of My Son and cycling tours of neighbouring villages are big on the agenda of visitors. Many of these are guided tours, but you also see a few braver travellers, breaking away without a guide, hopping onto the local ferry at the river port for an explore of the of the villages on the islands in the Thu Bon River. Thousands of tourists flock each night to the water’s edge to see the nightly parade of gaily coloured lanterns before heading off for a poke around the night market where they can purchase gaily coloured lanterns. As well as being harangued by withered old ladies in rowing boats offering their services for a boat ride. Just before sunset is the perfect time for a stroll around the streets where the colours of the old town really are at their best present the real charm of Hoi An; soft yellow hues of the houses accentuated by vibrant flowering vines.

The other key drawcard is the shopping. From tatty t-shirts and trinkets, knock-off North Face gear to high end tailoring and shoemaking, there’s something for all budgets. Something like 400 tailors operate in Hoi An; don’t know if anyone really knows but that’s the number that gets put around. And while many are careless with their work, particularly as they know a tourist is in town on a restricted timeframe, there are plenty of quality tailors amongst them, but you need to be prepared lay out a goodly sum for that service. The old maxim you get what you pay for is never truer than in Hoi An’s tailor shops.

Chinese tourists - is this the future for Hoi An?
Chinese tourists – is this the future for Hoi An?

Apart from a bit of tailoring, I’ve seen enough of these highlights, and am really on the lookout for something new and different. If you are in town, you’ll be amazed to see just how many shops there are selling the same t-shirts as their neighbour and the other 20 t-shirt shops in their street or alley. The sameness is crippling, and the vendors just don’t seem to get it.  Maybe it’ll be the Chinese tourists that are starting to invade the place (faux pas intended) that’ll buy up all this stuff.

Lady Buddha at Son Tra
Lady Buddha at Son Tra

Taking a scooter from my hotel, the very comfortable but severely under-rated Huy Hoang Garden, my first full day is to get out of Hoi An. I make my way about 4kms over to the coast where the beaches of Cua Dai and An Bang draw many folk eager to escape the old town. The 30km strip from Cua Dai to Danang offers some of the best beaches in Vietnam. Its nothing by Australian beach standards as there’s no surf to speak of, and there’s also the usual problem with rubbish, some dumped by locals but much of it washed ashore from the boats operating in a very busy shipping passage. But its sand and there’s a cool breeze. A new problem that has recently emerged is with coastal erosion at the southern end of the strip. Coupled with poor planning decisions and shoddy building practices, the beach is beginning to disappear. Out the front of the historic Victoria Hotel, the beach is gone completely rending their offers of beachside villas fairly hollow. The place is all but empty these days and will probably soon look like the ghost like structures of the many unfinished monolith resorts that dot the strip all the way up to Danang. I head up the coast road, my destination the Son Tra peninsula that juts out from Danang city.

View back to Danang from Son Tra
View back to Danang from Son Tra

Half way up the road I turn off at Marble Mountain, a complex devoted to marblework, from small pieces of work, elephants, turtle and like, to huge statues of Buddha, Jesus Christ and many other deities. Some are up to 10 metres in height. Across the road from Marble Mountain there’s also a magnificent stretch of clean beach. It’s quiet with little significant development for some distance. Presiding over this piece of gold is a bloke called Hoa, famous on many blog sites for his generous hospitality and his general guidance to relax and take it easy. We chat (in his vernacular it’s talk shit) for some time about our respective families – he has two daughters in Australia – Vietnam and the state of politics in Australia. Tony Abbott has just been toppled and as a result there’s been an appreciation of the AUD against the VND, going from a staggeringly low 15,500 dong to the dollar to about 16,500. As we chat a steady stream of old mates drop by for a coffee or beer and a friendly chat. Hoa is a very likeable guy and it’s clear he has struck a chord with many visitors to the area. Hoa is chiefly known for a small homestay called Hoa’s Place. It was knocked over about two years ago in a land development that left him very distraught, but he has regrouped and has plans to rebuild Hoa’s Place as a modest 3 room guest house where he currently operates a small drinks and food kiosk. The new place will have a second floor with commanding views over the beach. I’ll look forward to returning and seeing it finished.

Monkey Mountain
Monkey Mountain

A short hop further up the road is Son Tra or Monkey Mountain. It delivers great views back over the city of Danang. Perched on one side of it is a staggeringly beautiful 70m statue of the Lady Buddha. I stop for a quick look and continue on the road hoping to round the peninsula. My plans are foiled by the staff at the very grand Intercontinental Resort which occupies a fair swag of the land around the coast. They want 700,000 dong to allow me to pop down and see their beach. Naturally I balk at this, and finding no further route, I head back to Danang. The truth be told I didn’t look too hard for an alternative cause the rain was just starting to pour down so I thought some shelter in the city might be the best course. Having no real experience of big city riding, I seized the opportunity for a little practice. That being said Danang, whilst being Vietnam’s third biggest, is also probably the best planned city with plenty of wide boulevards especially in the city centre so it wasn’t too taxing on me. You just have to have your senses tuned a little more than normal driving as some of the streets are tight and the traffic flows in all directions. There are also plenty of traffic lights to assist me.

Pool at my hotel - Huy Hoang Garden
Pool at my hotel – Huy Hoang Garden

I navigate my way through the city and made my way across the magnificent Cau Rong, the Dragon Bridge, a real buzz. Each Saturday and Sunday nights, the local authorities light up the bridge and fire (of a sort) spews out the head of the Dragon on the eastern side of the bridge arches. It’s quite a show and I instantly regret not being in the area on the weekend. After crossing the beach, I turned right at the coast road and headed back to Hoi An, stopping once more at Hoa’s café to relax and talk shit.

T-shirts anyone?

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Quagmire in Quang Ngai

After a night at Pepper House, I made my way back to the coast at Dong Hoi for another night at the Beachside Backpackers before heading on a little further south to another coastal town, Quang Ngai. Not many tourists make their way to Quang Ngai, so I thought it would be good to try and scratch the surface a bit and see what the place is like.

Retaining wall at Nhan Trach cemetery
Retaining wall at Nhan Trach cemetery

Unfortunately the weather, more precisely Tropical Storm Vamco scuppered my plans.

Nhan Trach cemetery gate
Nhan Trach cemetery gate

Before heading off, I had one last opportunity for a look around Dong Hoi. I hired a scooter and headed north along the coast track, past the airport and countless empty beachside restaurants to a village called Nhan Trach. It’s an example of a Vietnamese fishing village stagnating into decline.  A little bit dusty, Nhan Trach has seen better days. Due to the size of its river mouth port, its fishing fleet is a collection of small boats, half moored in a small harbour for shelter, and the rest beached out the front of the village. Because of the size of the boats, they are in no position to compete with the larger boats of the fleet down the coast in Dong Hoi. As a consequence, this village and many others like it have been going through a slow decline.

Nhan Trach cemetery mosiac relief
Nhan Trach cemetery mosaic relief

As I’m riding around the town, I’m struck by the amount Chinese calligraphy on the front of many of the dwellings, much of it old and worn but easily recognisable. Anh later confirms that Nhan Trach’s original occupants were Chinese fisher folk who drifted down the coast line some millennia ago. I stop by the cemetery where I see a couple of labour teams working on restoring a retaining wall and some of the mosaic work at the entrance area.

Making mosiac glass out of beer bottles
Making mosaic glass out of beer bottles

There’s a lot friendly banter between us as they show me their work and allow me to photograph them. With mocking laughter, they show me how the retaining wall is crooked; a subtle poke at Vietnamese building standards. It was a Saturday, a normal work day, but these guys were working in the middle of a damn hot day. A lot of the guys bore a tattooed number on their forearms, I am sure there is a story to that.

Mosaic detail
Mosaic detail

The last night in Dong Hoi turns into a late one, with myself, aussie Dave, Anh the owner of the backpacker place, Mikkel the Danish golf writer and an Englishman Jamie, up watching the premier league football on TV. Interestingly one of the things that all the places I’ve stayed at Dong Hoi or Phong Nha have no TVs in their rooms. Just this one in the bar area at the backpackers.

Mosaic detail
Mosaic detail

Anyway I sleep through my alarm and wake at 7am; in a frantic panic, I pack the bag, check out and make it to the train station at 7.30 just as my train, the SE2, pulls in.

The SE2 is one of six services Vietnam Railways run between Hanoi and Saigon. The SE2, 4 and 6 run north to south, and the SE1, 3 and 5 run in the opposite direction. They are clean and comfortable means of travel, offering hard and soft seat classes, as well as berths for the long overnight sections. As I’m doing just a short seven hour hop between Dong Hoi and Quang Ngai, the soft seat class is perfect. And as I had a late night, I recline back and sleep through most of the journey.

Arriving at Quang Ngai just as the rain and wind from Vamco start up, I scuttle off to a hotel recommended by Travelfish as being cheap, comfortable and well located. The Khanh Dong is certainly cheap at 220,000 dong, or about $13, and well located, but it’s also seen better days. Not to worry as I’m planning to stay just the one night; the next taking a ferry out to Ly Son island to check out some nice beaches and the vast stretches of garlic that the island is famed for.

Gloomy Quang Ngai
Gloomy Quang Ngai from my hotel

As I start thinking about the logistics of getting to Sa Ky port the next morning, Tropical Storm Vamco starts to really hit it’s straps; the view of the city from my fourth floor room makes it clear that a ferry trip tomorrow is not practical at all. I check the weather outlook and its pretty dismal; rain for the next 5 days across much of south Vietnam, particularly in the central region where I am. My friend Loc messages me to say that even if I managed to get a ferry out to Ly Son, doubtful as that was now, there was every chance that it would not return for some time. So I made the call that I would stay another night, check out Quang Ngai and head up to Hoi An.

After a bowl of bun bo, a noodle soup with beef and lots of herby goodness, from a corner stall, I retired and waited for some break in the weather for a chance to look around the city. It wasn’t until about 2pm that there was any reprieve in the weather. The forecast was for heavier downpours that night. I seized the chance and headed to the train station, both to book a ticket to Danang, the dropping off point for Hoi An, and as a starting point for a stroll around Quang Ngai.

Ga Quang Ngai
Ga Quang Ngai

The viets aren’t big on city strolls. They do the early morning stroll in a park, or by the riverside, as a means of exercise, but not strolling around cities. And really, the pavements just aren’t made for it, with broken sections or parked scooters making it a circuitous exercise. In anycase I like to stroll as it’s a good way of taking in things at street level. I’d already made a small venture out the previous evening before the rain made it too hard to go on. The area around the hotel is light industrial, with many repair shops renewing second-hand pumps, TVs, motors and the like. Whilst heading back to hotel, I witnessed a head on collision between two scooters. Luckily the worst of it was a young girl suffering some grazes and a bit of shock. The guy on the other scooter, more than likely the cause of the accident, hopped onto in his scooter, and with exhaust pipe scraping on the ground fled the scene.

Packing up motorbikes for transport by rail
Packing up motorbikes for transport by rail

On my current stroll I headed up through the commercial centre of the town, past an expanse of large government offices, banks and insurance company offices. Very few cars or scooters are parked at these buildings suggesting that there aren’t many workers inside them; the buildings grand edifices of Vietnamese machismo. I headed on hoping to find the Bac Son restaurant, recommended by some as a place to try. Instead I found an empty soulless place and I gave it a miss. Instead I hopped across the round for snack of banh mi cha lua, a crisp baguette, warmed on a charcoal fired drum, filled with Vietnamese pate and fresh herbs. The old lady running the cart prepared the baguette with aplomb, to her credit and fortune, was doing a brisk trade. The banh mi was the perfect snack and I headed off to find the market, Cho Quang Ngai. Finding the location by google maps, I was disappointed to find that the old market was demolished and in the process of being replaced by a two storey concrete edifice. Somewhat disappointing but that’s progress, and an outlet for Vietnam’s concrete industry, the second biggest in the world behind China.

Railway station porter
Railway station porter

The next morning I shuffled off to the railway station for the short hop to Danang. I was a bit disappointed that I didn’t get to see a bit more of the area but time and the weather meant I had to keep going. Its not the most appealing city in Vietnam and I suppose some of that is due to the fact that its not on the coast but set about 5 km inland on the banks of the Tra Khuc river. Cities further to the south like Quy Nhon are getting growing numbers of tourists coming because of a ice beach setting, and that they have an air connection with major hubs in Vietnam.

Railway station porter
Railway station porter

Instead Quang Ngai is reliant on train and road connections. Still I might drift back next time.