I had read previously on Seat61 that trains in Viet Nam are plentiful and cheap. I love trains, and decided to investigate. There are varying degrees of luxury on Vietnamese trains, ranging from slatted wooden seats, with open windows and fans, to air-conditioned “soft sleepers”. There are mid-range seats as well, air-conditioned hard seats, and soft seats, but the price jumps up accordingly. I figured I could tough out a hard seat; after all, I’d been 6 hours on a (to my mind) hard-seated train in Thailand to the Cambodian border. I checked the train charts: the train to Da Nang left Saigon at 12:20, and reached Da Nang at 7. I can handle 7 hard hours, I thought.
I should mention that I’d collected a fellow traveler by this time: Olivier, a French-Canadian on his first tour abroad. We met at the ill-starred Budget Hostel, and he declared his desire to adjourn to Da Nang as well, and so we went. We purchased our tickets, and boarded the train. Around 7PM, I thought I heard the conductor say, “Da Nang!”, so we prepared to disembark. However, when the train stopped, the station was discovered not to be Da Nang at all. For a few hours, I’d had a sick feeling growing in the pit of my stomach due to my laissez-faire attitude towards train times. I recalled belatedly that times in Asia are almost without fail in what we call military time. After our attempted flight from the train, and upon hearing that we were heading for Da Nang, the conductor broke into laughter, and told us we would reach Da Nang at 7…in the morning. Whoops!
Olivier, looking at me with a horrified face: “You mean…we have to stay on this train all night?” Our butts were already sore from seven hours of travel, we had exhausted our food stores, drank our water; in short, we were screwed. The benches are about a meter long, short-bodied Viets can lie in an almost comfortable fetal position on them without poking their heads into the aisle. I cannot. In the end, I ended up sleeping upright, with my legs extended under the next seat. Olivier laid on his back, with his crossed legs propped against the wall. His torso alone took up the entire length of the seat.
In Viet Nam, I’ve noticed any foreigner exudes a peculiar attractant to the Vietnamese peoples. Not long after my embarrassing revelation on the train, a young man approached Olivier, seated himself beside him, and began speaking companionably with him. This young man, Trung, spoke with him for several hours, and when he left to sleep, said he would find us again in the morning. When we rolled into Da Nang, he escorted us from the train, and said he would take us to a cheap guesthouse nearby. I offered to carry a taped styrofoam box he was struggling with, and noticed, over the course of the journey to the guesthouse, that it felt as though something was trying to climb out of it. “Are there crabs in here?” I asked Trung. He looked confused. “Lobster?”. Nothing. “Animals?” His face brightened. “Yes, animals!” I felt like I was holding the box that held the monster cat in Mousehunt; every so often it lurched fore or aft and the skittering of crustacean appendages could be detected along the inside of the box walls.
The guesthouse he brought us to was down an alley, where else, but it was clean, and offered two beds, a bathroom, a T.V. and a fan at 150,000 VND/night. It was called Ha Chau Nha Nghi–good luck finding it. Even in the city, no one knew it. At night, a dessert vendor encamped near the entrance; in the morning, a woman selling Bahn Mi Loc sat in the alley itself. The alley connected with numerous other alleys, and one could travel the city without ever putting foot on a major street (a smart move, if one knew one’s way).
I didn’t do much during my stay in Da Nang; a lot of wandering the city and eating. I could tell you all the tasty things to try, though! There’s a delicious bakery on Ly Thai To Rd that I bought tartlets from every single day. I’ll give you the name when the internet works better. Updated: I hope this is the right one. There is a horrible one on the opposite side. They speak no English, but like I said, I’m pretty good at food ordering and paying. The options are passion fruit, chocolate, lemon brie (not sure on this one, just going by taste), pineapple, strawberry cream (not good), and egg. There is also a rude and not delicious bakery on the same road, beware! However, it’s on the left side, as one walks towards the beach, and the good bakery is on the right a little further.
Try some new fruits. Dragonfruit is a large, ovoid, pink fruit, with green tipped tentacles. Inside the fruit is sweet, white, with a mealy texture and small black seeds. Rambutan is a small coral-shelled fruit, covered in inch-long bright green hairs. Inside, the fruit is similar in texture to lychee, with a taste similar to herbal tea. Guavas are green like Granny Smith apples when unripe, and gradually shade to a light green, perhaps with a touch of pink when ready to be eaten. They are bumpy, and about the size of a grapefruit. The flesh is milky, with the soft, slippery texture of ripe mango. Not a strong taste, but the rind is reminiscent of eucalyptus. Longans come in little brown spheres, with a thin, hard case. Inside, the flesh is translucent and hard, just like rambutans and lychees. The taste is similar to rambutans, but with a much stronger flavor. Sweet and herbal. Rose apples are shaped like pears, but with deep grooves in their sides, and ruby-shaded. The flesh is light, with almost no flavor, and crisp. Passionfruit looks like a small rugby ball, hard, and must be cut open. Inside, the edible portion looks like snot. It is a brilliant acid green, filled with small seeds much like tomato seeds. It is delightfully sour, and lends its flavor to many enjoyable snacks in Viet Nam.
I tried Chè of various flavors. Chè, says my little phrasebook, is sweetened gruel. Well, it’s not just that. Nobody just eats chè plain, as far as I can tell. One eats Chè Xoa Xoa , sweet gruel, coconut milk, ice, and various gelatins and chewies. This can be had for 7,000 dong, or 20,000, if you get stiffed on a main road. There’s a delicious yogurt made from condensed milk, but I’ll have to double-check the name. Update: It’s Sữa chua. Bún is simply rice noodles, and you can get an assortment of toppings, such as grilled meat (Thịt Nướng), fish (Cá), pork sausage (Chả), and fried spring rolls (I forget this one, maybe chả nem?). It will come with greens, usually including the dreaded Fish Mint (rau giấp cá) so tell them you don’t want it, if it offends you. When I order almost anything, it’s with the added request, “không rau giấp cá va giá đỗ”–no Fish Mint and beansprouts. It’s pronounced “Kum Rao Yee-ap Kha vah Yee-ah Dao”, if you take your meals as I do.
One day, I decided to go to the historic city of Hội An. This is the one day it has rained in Viet Nam. We hailed a bus–they go all day long from Da Nang to Hội An and back–and got on. The female bus conductor told us the fare was 50,000 dong. This isn’t true. She even got the other bus passengers to agree with her. The true passage is 20,000 dong, but as a foreigner you’ll almost certainly be charged 30,000. Just hand them 30,000 dong and be done with it. So the day started off on a bad foot. It was pouring rain when we reached Hoi An an hour later. I bought a poncho, and we set off to find the center of town. It’s about a half-mile walk from the bus station to the center of town, or maybe a bit more. Don’t take a motorcycle taxi unless you’re in a hurry; they won’t take you for less than 10,000 VND, but it’s not worth even that.
Walking down Hai Ba Trung, we came upon a bike renter. There was something of a kerfuffle when it was discovered we weren’t boarding in town, but it was overcome by our rapid proffer of 20,000 dong. $1 per day for a nice bike is, as I’ve mentioned before, highly equitable. On the bus we had made the acquaintance of a young Swedish woman. How pleased we both were, to find semi-kindred in the diaspora! She joined our gang, and we peddled away towards the Ancient City.
You have to buy a pass to go into any historical area; 120,000 VND gives you entry to five places, or more if you’re not caught going in. I was always caught. The others made it out with a score of unused tickets. I had read a guide to Hoi An the morning of, in which a woman offered her opinion on the available attractions, and had decided to go to the Tan Ky House, the Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, the Museum of Folk Culture, the Phung Hung House, and the “Evening Art Performance”. Unfortunately, the rain made all of us a little slow-moving, and two of us reached only three of these places. The Phuc Kien Assembly Hall is definitely worth a visit, it’s beautiful and relatively unpopulated. The Tan Ky House is a waste of a ticket, you see only the reception room. The Museum of Folk Culture is great to see, you can get in and away without losing a ticket, and there’s not a sole inside besides you. Outside this building, there are what look like weaving demonstrations–surely during drier weather.
We never made it to the Evening Art Performance, although I’m told it takes place “to the right of the An Hoi bridge, near the cao lầu stands” at 7:30PM. Speaking of cao lầu, it is great. That statement seems feeble in describing the immense pleasure I have in eating it. The noodles are similar in form to fettucine, but thick, and made of some other grain. The broth is rich, and it is topped with pork, deep-fried pork skins, and greens. Even the greens are delicious!
Nearby the Central Market, where we had lunch, is a warehouse of smaller shops. It was here I attempted to have an Ao Dai made. Don’t do this. I was rushed through the choosing of a pattern, of cloth colors, and then rapidly fitted and told to return the next afternoon. I forgot to haggle, and agreed to a $45 outfit (NO NO NO). When I went to pay, I was sure I handed the lady a 500,000 dong bill I had been keeping at the bottom of my coin purse, but she ran out after us and caught us on the steps, claiming I had only handed her a 20. To this day, I don’t know what happened to my 500,000 dong. The woman swore up and down she didn’t have it, and the owner of the shop also, stating their Buddhist inclinations as proof of her honesty. Anyhow, I should have given it up then, but I didn’t.
Upon returning the next day, I was shown my new Ao Dai. Where’s the collar I wanted? Then the tailor woman became defensive. “You say, 1-color! I make 1-color. I ask you, you say, no 2-color, 1-color; cheaper!” Where I had assumed the part that was shown in the picture to be two colors would simply be made in one color, she had removed the part altogether, leaving a plain V-Neck color. The Ao Dai fit imperfectly, and I was crushed. The owner came up to me as I drifted sadly out, telling me that she had spoken to the seamstress, and telling her that she must fix it if I was unhappy, but the seamstress was adamant, claiming I had told her it was to be made this way. She extended sincere apologies on behalf of the outcome, of both the dress and the lost money. She seemed truly unhappy, but then so was I.
Reaching Da Nang again, after an hour bus ride in the opposite direction, I went for a walk to see if I could find a seamstress to append a collar to my sadly-lacking Ao Dai. I was led by a silk seller to a tailor in an alley, but through a young woman neighbor I was told she was unable to change it, but could make a new one for 400,000 VND, and have it ready in two days. I agreed, still cherishing a hope of the perfect Ao Dai. Instead of choosing from the book of patterns, having previously drawn an account of what I wanted the appended collar to look like on the Ao Dai I had, the young girl told me the seamstress claimed she could make my new Ao Dai with such a collar. So I acquiesced to the second attempt on my fancy-collared Ao Dai, and signified the colors I would like. It seemed shady to not come back for a second fitting, but they assured me everything would be perfect.
The next day, I found an Ao Dai maker who agreed to take in my first Ao Dai, at least giving it a proper fit. Everywhere I wore it, people smiled, said, “Dep, dep!” and “Ao Dai Viet Nam”. Even our young friend from the train, Trung, said it made him so happy to see a foreigner wearing traditional Vietnamese Ao Dai, and that he thought it was beautiful. However, in my heart of hearts, I was unsatisfied, and eagerly awaited my new one.
I returned the evening we were to leave for Dong Hoi to collect my new Ao Dai. When they brought it over, my smile fell off. There was no collar whatever! The seamstress hadn’t understood my injunction, it appeared, and had made the Ao Dai off-the-shoulder. It was in a brazen gold, with bright tangerine pants–not the demure sand and soft coral combo I had envisioned. Even beyond that, it was almost intolerably tight. It was well-made, but wore like a second skin. I felt like a prostitute.
The owner of the shop, looked at the Ao Dai, looked at me, and asked what I thought of it. “It’s beautiful,” I said, “but it’s not what I wanted”. She and the other seamstress had a rapid back-and-forth, and the owner turned back to me and said, “She did not understand what you wanted, and she says she’ll make you the Ao Dai you want for free”. Alas, I was leaving! But what a generous offer! I would try again there, if I but had the time. Trinh is the name: 332/1 Le Duan, Da Nang. I wore it home, and again compliments flew from every quarter, but under my genial smile, my heart was breaking. What a fool!
When you order an Ao Dai, just take it exactly as it looks in the pattern book.
One night we went to karaoke with Trung and some of his friends. The karaoke house offered some English selections, and we had a great time belting old favorites, and mangling new ones. The room came with an assortment of drinks, sort of like the mini-bar in a hotel–you drink, you buy. How much could it possibly be, we wondered. The answer is: a lot. We each ended up paying about $12, because all of Trung’s friends left early, and we didn’t want him to pay. I had one Red Bull and a lychee soda. It was horrifying. But the karaoke memories will remain unscathed. It was an hilarious night. The French-Canadian rendition of “Roxanne” had me crying with laughter, and Emilie and I can really duet an ABBA song. To our very great surprise, Trung had the voice of an angel, or a J-Pop star. I have never heard anyone karaoke like that.
Odds and Ends: you can buy a new set of prescription glasses here, ready in half an hour, for $18. I wanted some, but I’d hemorrhaged enough cash. The beach is beautiful, but you’re only allowed to enter the water at specific points, demarcated by floating flag lines, and if you go in other places, you’ll be chased down by a life guard. Don’t try to send a package here, the rates are disgusting. On Saturday and Sunday, the Dragon Bridge (you can’t miss it) shoots flame and water vapor at 9PM. Also, almost every bridge in Da Nang is decorated in some way with rainbow lights. Truly a beautiful sight at night.
There is a gorgeous temple, called a pagoda by our friend Trung, dedicated to Guanyin, with an enormous statue to the same overlooking the city. There are statues of the Chinese Zodiac in the facing garden, and the entire thing is perched atop a high hill. We went by night, and the soft sound of the shore and the crickets drifted on the breeze with the dark smell of incense and closing flowers. It would be hard not to be quiet and respectful in such a place.