A Tale of Many Snacks: Da Nang, Vietnam

‘Don’t stay long in Da Nang,’ they said. ‘There’s only a bridge there,’ they said.

‘It’s half an hour from Hoi An,’ we said. ‘By Asian standards that’s about fourteen seconds. We are going to Da Nang.’ There’s also a train line that runs from Da Nang to Hue, our next stop, and everyone we met who had done the journey in the opposite direction raved about the views from the train.

One day I might elaborate on the fourteen-second journey from Hoi An, but for now let’s just say that it was the longest fourteen seconds of my life. Between our hostel in Hoi An and the one in Da Nang, I got lost, found the only cafe in Vietnam without Internet access, had my first ever moped ride and ate three Snickers bars and a pack of M&Ms. When I did arrive, I couldn’t work out if the shops and streets were closed because it was Sunday or if it was because everyone was right about the city being dead, but dinner was a packet of M&Ms and more Snickers (I haven’t eaten either since).

I woke up way too early on the first morning – well, at 8am, but it was one of the few days of the trip that I turned my alarm off and it was therefore too early – courtesy of a local school. There is no way you’d get away with a hostel full of grubby adults that close to a building full of children in the UK, but we were technically in a homestay. Our hosts had converted some rooms in their house into dorms, and a few others into classrooms for local children to learn English from volunteers. In another life, I’d have the temperament to volunteer to teach English, but in this life I grew up listening to My Chemical Romance and therefore say the word ‘fuck’ twelve times a day. Also, I was on holiday.

I went out for breakfast (I don’t think I’ve mentioned this, but Maxim is rarely awake before noon when left to his own devices) and I could not find a single place selling food. We had unwittingly stumbled into the least touristy part of Vietnam; Danang’s wide roads, tarmacked highways and looming office blocks could be part of any big city anywhere.

Christmas Tree in Danang Vietnema
Or they could until you notice the Christmas trees in February, anyway.

I found several cafes and bistros in our neighbourhood, but they only offered coffee and yogurt. If I’d been less exhausted and bewildered it would have been fun, but at the time I just wandered around thinking Surely local people eat out too? I still don’t know why this was the case in Da Nang but nowhere else in Vietnam, because I wasn’t after Western food (although there was a KFC), I just wanted to get rice porridge from somewhere that wasn’t a street vendor. SOMETIMES IN LIFE YOU NEED SEATS. After I caved in and got yogurt, which was served in a glass and pronounced ‘yourt’, I bought some home-brand Pringles and on-brand Dairylea triangles. Breakfast of champions, I told myself at the homestay, and the next day I bought cornflakes and borrowed a bowl from the kitchen. I should add that our hosts offered breakfast, but it was off limits. I felt like a dick with my Kellogg’s but IBS comes before everything, and at the time I hadn’t worked out that pho (rice noodle soup for those of you who have not experienced holy grail of noodle dishes) does not contain eggs.

Yoghurt in Danang, Vietnam
It might not be a meal, but yogurt in a glass is better than yogurt in a tinny pot. It comes with a straw, for god’s sake.

It was Valentine’s Day while we were there, and one of our roommates, Alice, invited us to a coffee bar for the evening. I didn’t think ‘coffee’ and ‘evening’ went together either, BUT IT DOES. England, you are missing a trick. Stop closing your cafes at night and keep them open, with live music and some food, all night. People are sober and chilled out and very, very awake. I’m going to do an entire post on Vietnamese coffee one day – I miss it like I miss pho, the weather and not changing my own bed sheets. If you’re planning a trip to Da Nang and like to drink, relax – there’s a good Aussie bar down by the water front (which is where everything seemed to be, including non-Aussie bars and, um, restaurants. Possibly I should learn to read maps). I pushed the boat out and had a gin and tonic (I think it was my third of the trip; the other two were on Koh Rong when I hurt my foot and thought a $4 mixer was a better idea than weed), and my lasting memory of the evening is of an old white dude at the bar dancing with a local lady like he was in a sleazier version of Strictly. Now I come to think of it, I’ve seen him in Southend.

We also saw Da Nang’s crowning glory, a bridge. I know, I know, a bridge. Boring. Except this bridge is a dragon.

Da Nang Dragon Bridge from a distance
The dragon breathes fire and water every weekend. IT ACTUALLY BREATHES FIRE.
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Please, Marvel, include this beauty of engineering in a film. Have it talk. Please.

Sometime during our stay in Da Nang was the first time I walked along a street and felt normal. Backpacking is weird; staying in one place for no more than four days at a time is weird; South East Asia is weird. I love all those things, but it took until mid-February for it all to feel normal. Apparently Da Nang is considered to be one of the best places to live in Vietnam because of its infrastructure; there’s a free hospital, plenty of schools – I can attest to their productivity – and a good road system. People just get on with their normal, every day lives – which is the most comforting thing you can see when you only stay in one place for four days. Don’t pass up the chance to go.

Lanterns and Lite History: Hoi An, Vietnam

Before I tell you about Hoi An, I need to tell you about the journey it took to get there. Until we left Da Lat to head north, our longest night bus journey had been about six hours, from Siem Reap down to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The bus there had basic but functional bunks, and although we were both zombies the next day, we did sleep for a bit. Cambodia to Saigon was a 15-hour or so set of day buses, but we went to bed as soon as we arrived so it was only a mild form of hell. Saigon to Mui Ne and Mui Ne to Da Lat were four-hour journeys and although they weren’t pleasant, they weren’t terrible. Da Lat to Hoi An was probably the first journey where I should have taken sleeping pills.

The first leg of the journey was down from Da Lat to Nha Trang and took about four hours. The worst bit was looking out at the mountains and realising that if the minibus hit a corner, we would all plummet to our deaths.

Dalat to Nha Trang, Vietnam
That’s not a badly taken photo, that’s the view (well it might be slightly badly taken I THOUGHT I WAS ABOUT TO DIE).

After a two hour stop over in Nha Trang (I did not, in the end, meet any Russians) we boarded the sleeper for Hoi An. It took 11 hours and I think I slept for three of them; the bus was overbooked so I had a local lady’s elbow in my face for a large portion of that.

We’d chosen our hostel in Hoi An on recommendation from people travelling the opposite way – they all raved about the free breakfast, and free breakfast is not something to be sniffed at. We rolled up at about 6:30am, just in time to plonk ourselves down in the dining area and give thanks for the buffet. Or I did, anyway – Maxim is not a breakfast person, so I ate enough for both of us and took a nap as soon as we could check in to our dorm.

Sign in Canteen, Hoi An, Vietnam
There is definitely a story behind the urgency of this sign.

Hoi An used to be a major international port and its Old Town, which is UNESCO certified, is a mishmash of architecture and history from Japan and China as well as Vietnam. Hoi An is also famous for its lanterns, which are so beautiful that not even my terrible photography can take from them.

I got serious sci fi film vibes from the green ones.

You can buy lanterns, but there was no way I’d get one home in one piece. I’ll just have to go back with a proper suitcase and some bubble wrap…

The Old Town is scattered with ‘community halls’ which I thought at first would be town halls like we have at home: nondescript, slightly damp buildings with stacking chairs and terrible coffee. In fact they are essentially temples. Groups of Chinese nationals settled in Hoi An in the 17th century and brought with them their architecture and culture and whatnot. I got a bit confused by all the history, which I was learning from plaques on walls as I went, so possibly you should read more than the Lonely Planet intro before you start. There’s also a ‘Japanese covered bridge’ at the entrance to the Old Town, from Hoi An’s Japanese traders. You can wander around the Old Town all day, basically (the traffic is minimal) and pay a few thousand dong to visit any five designated buildings in between coffee stops at very cute cafes on the river front. I did a few temples and a museum, which featured some local clothes and household objects and a fleet of very creepy mannequins.

I am fairly sure I’ve missed out a fun historical nugget of information – or several –  but as I write I’m waiting for the ferry from Koh Tao to mainland Thailand, so I will wrap this up. After Hoi An we went to Danang, which is way better than everyone says. There’s another bridge and everything.