Sunday, December 24, 2006

Day 08 - Descent to Hoi An

At 5:30am we bundled into a waiting car in the chill morning air in Dalat bound for Nha Trang airport and our flight to Da Nang. In putting together the whole SEATour, we'd aimed to fly everywhere to make the most of the time. The only fly in that ointment had been getting from Dalat to Hoi An our next destination. There simply wasn't any way to go north from Dalat without using four wheels and no wings. For $68, we'd found a driver and a car. What we hadn't expected to be thrown in for this price was the incredible sunrise we got to boot.

At first it seemd the driver spoke about four words of English: yes, no, stop, go. He then rapidly expanded this limited repertoire adding toilet, smoke, sandwich and the phrase no problem so ubiquitous in Vietnam, we were beginning to wonder if the English had in fact borrowed it from Vietnamese.

Perhaps it was because everyone in the country guesses (spectacularly wrongly) that we've been married only four months. Perhaps it was simply that tourists he usually drives are heartbroken at leaving Dalat. Perhaps it was simply that he couldn't find his way out of town. But our driver went round the lake twice and meandered through some of the older parts of town before finally pulling up outside a bakery. He flashed his first word at us (sandwich) and motioned inside. We went in and got some delicious pastries (custard tarts!) and a filled baguette each for the ride.

Then we were off down an avenue littered with colonial villas, many inhabited now by Vietnamese I'm glad to say, and we began our five hour descent to Nha Trang where we were due to check in around 11am.

The sunrise consisted of the most amazing light we've seen in a long time. We stopped off repeatedly to photograph both the sun and its effects on the surroundings. That route is a photographer's goldmine at that time of morning.

Sheena fell asleep pretty soon after we hit the plains but that wasn't before our driver pulled over to have a pee. I joined him and afterwards, he asked me if I smoked. Thankful yet again that I didn't, he pulled a bong out of his boot, a stash out from under the boot floor and set about lighting up a nice strong puff of what I hoped was simply tobacco but might well have been something slightly more narcotic.

Whatever it was, our speed drastically improved. I'd been following the route with interest with my map and had estimated that we were behind schedule. But soon he took a shortcut and we sped off on a secondary road across some of the most interesting and untouched country there must be in this area. The villages were simply three or four huts around a courtyard surrounded by dense forest. But every now and then, a village appeared sharply at odds with this consisting of row upon row of identical concrete houses hardly any of which had open shutters. Some were definitely occupied. Many seemed empty. I couldn't help thinking that people had been resettled there under some grand socialist plan. It didn't seem to be working, whatever the ideal.

Having met the main road, we slowed in the mass of traffic heading up the long road linking Saigon and Hanoi. Things seemed to be going well until the driver suddenly took a strange turn south onto a heavily potholed road and then a huge dual carriageway rolling through landscape that was entirely sand. This wasn't right and we tried hard to let the driver know. We only had thirty minutes until we were due to check in. He was absolutely unmoveable though and ploughed on to what signs were telling us was Cam Ranh airport, at least forty kilometres south of Nha Trang where our flight departed from.

I have to be honest and say we were pretty panicky now. We seemed to be in a complete wilderness with a driver heading the opposite way from where we intended with absolutely no time to spare and a schedule that would punish mercilessly any missed flight or hijacking. Adamantly our driver kept on until we finally rolled across cracked tarmac and derelict billboards flanked by dead trees to Cam Ranh airport which seemed abandoned.

This was in fact because it had been. In April 1974, the fleeing USAnians, who'd built it to bring in a ton of America's finest young men, had left it for the North Vietnamese Army to overrun. It looked as if nothing much had been done to it since then.

The handwritten flight info board confirms that we are in the right place after all.

Inside, I quickly apologised to the driver. He was absolutely right. All flights for Nha Trang were now to go from Cam Ranh. How he knew this, we never found out. Why this was also remained a mystery. We were now early for our flight in fact which gave us time in the restaurant. Food wasn't that good though:


Our flight left a bit late and soon we were standing outside Da Nang airport looking for our invisible car from the Vinh Hung Resort in Hoi An, our next destination 25 km away. It was nowhere to be seen. An exorbitant phone call later, we established that they had no idea about sending us a car and we were constantly badgered by taxi drivers who treated us as carrion. Picking out the only one who was standing quietly leaving us alone, we got into his car which the others found hilarious and soon we were riding parallel with China Beach, the infamous R&R destination for American troops during the Vietnam War. I half expected to see Caucasian faces among the locals. They'd be about my age by now.

Turns out the hotel knew nothing about a car for us despite it being confirmed in an email I had a printout of. That was only the first of our hassles with this hotel but I'll keep all that for another day. We were shown to a fantastic room at one corner of the hotel overlooking the river and were left to freshen up. We instantly attacked the fruit on the coffee table to rid ourselves of the memory of yet more VNA pate!

We spent the evening having people gauge our vital statistics. Hoi An, for some reason, has become the tailoring capital of the land. Clothes, shoes, even furniture can be made to your design or any you happen to pick out of a catalogue. We were after clothes and spent a few hours choosing the designs, materials and getting measured up.


Back at the hotel, we'd been invited to the free Christmas Eve buffet. The food was great, the entertainment decidedly less so and this must have displeased the Powers that Be because a couple of hours into the evening it began to rain. We'd eaten enough by then and sauntered back to our room to try out our jacuzzi before a great night's sleep.

John tucks into noodles at our hotel's Christmas Eve buffet - just before it started raining.

The jacuzzi was an enormous corner bath. The two of us fitted into it with no problems. What we had problems fitting into it though was enough hot water. The immersion heater (for this is what the Vietnamese use to heat their water in every establishment in the country) was only big enough to fill the bath to approximately five inches deep and, crucially, to just short of the jets for the jacuzzi. Patently, it was useless and we were somewhat disappointed. Never mind, at least we had the luxury of a blissfully quiet night between the sheets of our huge comfy double bed...

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