(August 13th) The next morning we got our rather expensive laundry back from the hotel front desk. Our shoes were still wet, and therefore stinky. Also, a couple of things Lily put in the wash had magicked up brown stains, so we asked for a discount from the hotel and got 50% off. Mo told us she’d had a nice date with Jelle, then asked us to help her interview a new receptionist, to see how good her english was (“if there was a huge spider in my room, what would you do?” “What is your favourite restaurant in Dong Hoi?”). She was nervous, shy and cute.
We’d booked an extra night there, but decided to leave that day to go to a hostel in Dong Hoi (for about 1/5 of the price of Chay Lap). As we wouldn’t need much of the stuff we’d brought caving with us, and had several items of memorabilia we’d bought to take back to Bogotá, and other things we simply hadn’t worn yet, we packed two plastic bags full of stuff to ship to Lily’s sister in Sydney.
In Dong Hoi, we gave up our shoes to the new hostel owners, a couple with a 1-year-old who’d decided to rent a large building to operate their first hostel. They told me it was tough going. I vowed to myself I’d write them a great review on Trip Advisor. Lily had some flip flops, but as I didn’t have footwear, we walked barefoot to a nearby restaurant that couldn’t understand us (and we couldn’t understand), so Lily was lead inside to order by pointing at dishes in the kitchen. We received mystery meat, and only one of the two things Lily thought she’d ordered. We paid 65,000 dong ($2.70) for the two beers, meat and rice. At the place next door we paid $1.40 for a “milk sour green tea” and a “milk sour pearl” for dessert, then went to a corner bar to drink 1.5 litres of beer for $1.30. Dinner, dessert and beer for $5.40.
(August 14th) Walked from the hotel out to Geminai hotel and restaurant. Ate shrimp and rice paste in banana leaves, oysters served with rice popadoms, and a delicious (but westernised) banh mi. It was a little too neat – we were now used to metal-cart banh mi.
Went up the beach to a backpacker hostel, trying to speed walk in the serious sun. Beers (Hodu, the largest cheap beer), and a surprisingly good pool table. As with all humid, beachside games, I needed to paint my hand with chalk (or in this case talcum powder) to let the cue slip without friction burn. The rails were still firm, and it had been re-clothed only a few months before. Easily the nicest outdoors table I’ve ever played on in a tropical climate.
Lily played with George, a brown puppy. This’ll either put off her longing for Pisco for another week, or strengthen it (four nights in a row she’s dreamt about him). And at one point we saw a herd of unattended cows making a break for it up the beach. “That’s not usual”, the bartender said, “I’ve never seen that before”.
We picked up a fellow traveller, Mariama, and went to a charity where blind people give you massages. Yes, that’s socially uncomfortable. But, who better to give you physical bliss than someone who can’t see?
At the massage parlour, we were given a room with three beds, and three blind masseuses. It started with a head prodding with strong fingers. We’d heard that a traditional Vietnamese massage was focused on finding the right pressure points for health, rather than to relax, and my guy certainly was digging in with his strong, almost sharp fingers. On the rest of my body, the massage was a mix of prodding and rough rubbing with his dry hands. Every time too much of my natural skin oil softened things, he’d give his hands a wipe on his apron, drying his hands off. The effect was akin to being rubbed by the underside of a rubber bar mat. I’ve never done that, but it’s what came to mind.
With his fingers like stalactites and rough palms I distracted myself by imagining that I was being massaged by the caves we’d just explored. Then like carrion tenderising a corpse before chowing down on it, then like an alien scientist testing in a lab the tensile strength of the skin of a humanoid. At one point he put a spicy, peppermint liquid onto my legs, then rubbed it so hard it felt as if he was trying to force it through my pores, directly into my muscles. The burning sensation was similar to getting water on a poison ivy rash. He twisted my neck so hard it clicked three times in each direction, and accidentally touched my ball sack, which felt somehow worse that he was blind – his fingers were sensitive enough to read braille, so what message had my wrinkly scrotum given him? Feeling light headed on the way to Tree Hugger cafe, I wondered whether there was any truth to Kill Bill’s five point exploding heart technique.
At the café we had an avocado smoothie and rice noodle dish, and chatted to Mariama. She was undeniably beautiful, but hard to place. She told us she has a grandma from Suriname, “the Dutch slave port. Quite a mix, of Africans, Chinese, native Americans, Indians.” Her dad’s parents are Native American and African. We left her at the restaurant, went back to the hostel, picked up our bags and went to the train station to catch a ride to Hanoi, then went back to the hostel to pick up the bag we forgot, then back to the station again. On the train we saw three cockroaches (which, to be honest, Lily dealt with pretty well).
(August 15th) Arrived at 5 a.m., went to the hostel in a taxi that seriously tried to rip us off, so we haggled him down to a price that was still insulting to us, and he walked off with our cash in a bit of a huff.
The hostel didn’t have a room ready for us, so we went to walk around town. There was some rain, so Lily bought a plastic body condom for $10,000 (£0.20) to protect her. We were both a bit terrified of getting wet; the stench of our caving trip would emerge from our sandals every time we were in so much as a drizzle or stepped in a puddle.
We picked up a banh mi, walked with it around the Lake, then got a coffee at Trung Nguyen Legend Cafe, an expensive chain that tried to upsell us into buying a bag of their best grains. Then we had an expensive and absolutely delicious lunch at Madam Yen Restaurant: bun cha, a dish with rice noodles, barbecued beef and a broth that was sweet, into which you dipped everything. Spent some time looking at the French Quarter, including a pagoda, a Notre Dame lookalike, and returned to the hotel, showered, changed, then went out to the bar district.
On Pub Street, there are dozens of bars spilling out into the road with small tables and stools under awnings, each with a host trying to entreat you to sit down. We walked around the block, then decided on a place where we got a barbecue cooked at our table. Squid, shrimp, mushrooms and beef, cooked in butter on a tinfoil covered hot plate over a charcoal grill.
Next we went onto a very small bar because it had two adorable dogs, one of whom was a puppy, with the bonus of jazz music. Had a beer while playing with them, then moved onto a bar with a pool table, where we spent the rest of the night chatting, playing pool and drawing (my portrait of Lily was terrible but Lily was nice about it, and we couldn’t get the perspective right trying to depict the inside of the pub). The girls and guys were good shots. I almost won my second game, but managed to swing the white ball around the table on my penultimate shot, somehow sneaking it in between the black and the pocket it was sitting over. I missed trying to cut it across the table into the centre pocket, and my opponent slammed a tricky black home for the win.
While waiting to play between losses, I spoke to Gary, who’d been living here for several years, and said even the granddaughters of southerners who fought alongside the Americans can be blacklisted from getting the best jobs, university places and so on. The country isn’t communist, it’s corrupt and protectionist for people who have money. Government officials get payed $20k a year but live in million dollar houses. Home to sleep.
(August 16th) Had a pho at a place that was full of people (we had to wait in line to get in), then walked to temple of literature with a headphone audio tour. Which was absolutely beautiful.
Ho Chi Minh museum. We stayed on a corner for ages waiting for the right brand of of taxi, because Lily didn’t want to get ripped off by any asshole that wanted to overcharge us. We eventually just got in any taxi to the mausoleum. The museum and the mausoleum were both pretty boring.
Back to the hotel in time for the food tour. Food tour, had four types of dim sum, then a pork noodle dish that we’d eaten in Madam Yen’s the day before, a steamed pork bun, an amazingly beautiful, artisinal egg coffee, and a bowl of fruit. Went home and scrubbed our sandals with a toothbrush for 20 minutes, trying to get rid of some of the stink, then dried them out under the fan and went to sleep.
(August 17th) Started with a banh mi with coffee, then walked through the market, then walked to an old bridge that’s a couple of kilometres long over a river, with a train track in the middle, a lane for motorbikes on either side of it, and a narrow path for pedestrians made of rectangular concrete slabs between which you could see down to the river, hundreds of feet below. Half of it had been destroyed during the American war, so it was built in two styles, and didn’t feel particularly stable.
Near the middle of the crossing, I noticed a guy in the centre of the tracks fiddling with what looked like a fuse box. Seeing me looking (I thought he worked for the train line), he waved me over, then disappeared down a ladder. I had to cross the motorbike lane, hop over a fence, walk across a wooden plank onto the tracks, then go up the middle of the tracks along a wooden beam, then took a right along another plank to the hole down which he’d disappeared.
The ladder brought me to one of the large concete pillars propping up the bridge. The guy had built a home there; his bed was on a raised platform, just a foot under the tracks; he had a couple of white plastic buckets to sit on; and he had a fishing rod with a long line that must have been able to reach all the way down to the river below, because he had another bucket full of fish parts; and an electric cooker he powered by connecting to the fuse box above. He looked comfortable, and other than water, it looked like he had his essentials covered (warmth, a bed, food and electricity). I suppose the river might have been drinkable, but it looked silty, and god knows what chemicals Hanoi dumps into it.
Lily worried I’d been raped, so she called out for me. I got the feeling the nice man had wanted me to stay around for the cup of tea he was boiling, but unable to communicate with him, and unwilling to try to coax Lily down to the rails below, nor burden the man with another mouth to feed, I guiltily came back topside.
At the end of the bridge we got in a Grab taxi (because the waiting taxi wanted to charge us a million dong – that’s $50 USD, roughly $48 more than it should have been – to get back over the bridge), to a dessert place Lily had googled. Creme caramel for $0.25, purple rice for $0.50 and a fresh coconut full of coconut jelly and water for $1.80 (62,000 dong total). A note on this; Lily did the vast majority of the planning for this trip. At times it was a little annoying – we left little room for strolling into restaurants we stumbled across, because we almost always had a plan. On the other hand, me doing so little research was massively frustrating for her, because it felt I was drifting along on her hard work. This was a point of contention for the majority of the end of the trip. I was probably just being lazy (on the other hand, I was the one writing the holiday diary…).
We next walked to an art gallery and had a coffee, then onto a restaurant that was closed, then a pet shop to get Pisco a treat from Vietnam (a tooth-cleaning bone), then to one of the restaurants we’d visited the night before, to get the sweet pork noodle dish (another bun cha), then onto the egg coffee place again.
Massage at a place for 200k, which was cheap, upstairs, and two girls clamboured all over the beds on top of us. Mine seemed determined to get a tip, often stroking my arm with her bare legs (she was in denim hot pants), at one point gently gripping my arm between her warm, soft thighs. It worked, I gave her a 50 ($2). Lily’s massage was shit. So, no going back there then. Back to the hostel to shower. Then onto the night bus to Ha Giang.