Travel joys: the bus from Cu Nam to Hanoi

Don’t let the title fool you; this is actually a travel gripe. 🙂

So we’d just had this magical moped ride through softly twi-lit farmlands as a new moon rose over the land. I was floating in the beauty of it all when suddenly our drivers unceremoniously dropped us at the bus “station”. Presumably they then sorted out the ticket with the guy who seemed like maybe he worked at the place. The “place” being a lot facing the street in front of what appeared to be someone’s home. And then they were gone.

Our hosts at Phong Nha had said they could fix us up with a bus ticket to our next destination, Hanoi. Had assured us that this particular bus at 8 at night was the only one that we’d be able to get to Hanoi. Had convinced us we needed to leave the home stay at 6 to be there on time.

So there we were at 6:20, the only people hanging out in these folks’ driveway, wondering how we would occupy ourselves for the next hour and a half.

Luckily, it turned out we’d have plenty of time to sort out entertainment. After about five minutes, the guy at the bus station explained to us with limited English that the bus was running late – two hours late in fact. We called the Farm Stay and had them talk to the guy and confirm this unbelievable fact. They said they’d look into things but we never heard from them again.

So, we sat on the little plastic chairs as the last of the light faded, and proceeded to watch as bus after bus, clearly marked with the end-destination of Hanoi, rushed mockingly past us. We were joined by a friendly English teacher, who pulled up a chair and shared cup after thimble-sized cup of the bitterest green tea with me. (Knowing we had an overnight bus ride with the distinct possibility of no bathroom breaks, I’d promised my bladder I wouldn’t drink anything after leaving the hotel. Ah the lengths I will go to be politely social!) Eventually his bus (to Hanoi) showed up and my taste buds could slowly start to uncoil. (And I attempted to make amends with my bladder in the family’s wet, dingy “bathroom”.)

Finally, four hours later, our bus pulled up. We scrambled across the waist high road divider with our luggage and up into the bus.

We’d done overnight buses before in Thailand and figured it would be more or less the same. Something half way between an economy and business class seat in a plane, except with a lot more neon and black light decorations, so you feel like you’re traveling through Thailand inside a rolling fish tank.

Because of this, we were a bit taken aback to discover a whole different set up on the Vietnamese night bus. Three rows of narrow metal bunks, stacked two deep, filled the crammed bus. The pathway between the bunks was so tight that my backpack kept getting stuck as I walked through to the back of the blue-lit bus.

A really nice guy switched his seat so that Roman and I could bunk close to each other. Up into the narrow “bed” we climbed and attempted to get comfortable for the night. The bus took off and the lights went out; the lucky went to sleep and the rest made do.

I was wired from all that green tea, so I plugged in my headphones and tried to enjoy the dark scenery outside, doing my best to block out the sniffling, snorting, snoring, sneezing, vomiting and – most persistent and pervasive – a steady stream of farts that were making their way at regular intervals through the aisles from somewhere in the back of the bus.

After a few hours even I was able to finally nod off; blessedly when I woke up the sun was up and we were nearing Hanoi. Eventually we arrived at the bus station – this time a real one – groggy, sweaty and eager to get to our hotel. My bladder was complaining about all that green tea but there wasn’t a bathroom in sight. Or a taxi we were willing to get into, either.

We’d been instructed by the hotel in Hanoi which cab companies were trustworthy, and how much it should cost us to get from the bus station to the hotel.

We left the bus station parking lot with our big packs, fending off sketchy drivers and scanning traffic for a legitimate cab. After a sweaty quarter-hour of failure, my bladder getting more insistent by the minute, we finally gave up and flagged the next cab we saw.

The driver agreed to use the meter; we thought maybe we’d be all right until we noticed that it was running faster than water through a sieve. In the end the price was well over double what we knew for sure it should be. Roman was an absolute hero and stood his ground with the guy for another fifteen minutes in front of the hotel (no joke, the guy would NOT back down! Finally after Roman threatened to go to the police, the driver grudgingly accepted the fair payment) while I checked us in and (bliss!) use the lobby’s bathroom. I tried to have some breakfast pho, but all I could smell (and subsequently taste) was bus farts – pho may be ruined for me for the near future.

The hotel staff were very sweet but also a bit too well-trained; they took us through the numerous tour options they could arrange for us while I was just trying to revive my brain with cup after cup of coffee. Eventually our room was ready and I gratefully flopped into the non-moving, non-smelly, silent bed. Hello Hanoi!

P1010815
Roman managed to snap a quick photo of the bus before he disembarked in Hanoi – just to give you an idea of the set up. 🙂

Expectations and endless green

At this point in the trip it was feeling like quite a challenge to get off of the well-beaten tourist path in Vietnam (more like the well-bulldozed, completely paved six-lane highway of tourism actually). Most destinations listed in Lonely Planet were so well established that the “experience” of them was pretty pre-packaged and ready-made by the tourism machine.

Many places we looked into that were not on the major hit list were described, by Lonely Planet and other sources we cross-referenced, in such a way that they came across as totally and completely unappealing. *

So when we stumbled across information about a “farm stay” that was too new to be in Lonely Planet but came with favorable reviews and wasn’t at a major tourist destination, we were keen to give it a go.

So, we’re not 21 anymore

The Phong Nha Farm Stay was in a small farming village in North-Central Vietnam called Cu Nam. The closest major transportation stop is the beach town of Dong Hoi. The place is owned and operated by an Aussie/Vietnamese couple and her (she’s the Vietnamese half) family.

I think we calibrated our expectations a bit too high.

We’d had such an amazing time at the home-stay in the rural village in Laos, where the family was clearly running a business taking on tourists but none-the-less welcomed us very warmly. The interactions we had with them felt genuine – down to earth and grounded in the simple kindness and straightforwardness we experienced again and again throughout Laos.

So we probably had a bit of that experience lingering in our minds as we anticipated something like a B&B with a farm-like/homey atmosphere at Phong Nha.

The place is more of a proper hotel though, a newly built two-story building with a lounge/restaurant/bar downstairs (complete with pool table) and even an in-ground pool out back. The owners were chummy enough but in an off-hand, impersonal way, and the place seemed geared towards younger backpackers, with drinking being the preferred evening activity for both guests and the Aussies working there.

Not that any of this is a bad thing, but it’s not what we expected (ah, those pesky expectations again!) and not necessarily the scene we’d go for.

Green relief

That being said, being out in pure countryside again after all the time we’d spent in busy cities and tourist spots made for a welcome and nice change. And what countryside it was!

I think I wrote in an early post that I never seem to tire of looking at rice paddies. I can safely say this remains true.

Brilliantly green fields stretched off into the distance just across the road from the hotel and whether from our balcony view or from paths walking or biking along or through the paddies, I just kept drinking in the gorgeous ocean of green stalks swaying in unison like a glowing cloth in the wind.

Low, rounded mountains framed the farmlands in shades of soft purple and blue, like something out of a painting. I’ve included some my photos below; I’ve tried to exercise restraint as most of the pictures I took ended up being simply a whole lot of green and things could get repetitive quite quickly! 🙂

Into the belly of the Earth

One day we visited the Phong Nha cave. It’s apparently a popular destination for Vietnamese tourists and can get pretty crowded and loud, but we got lucky with our timing. The cave is nearly 55 kilometers long, with the first kilometer accessible by guided boats and illuminated for tourists’ benefit by dramatic, colorful lighting.

We had braced ourselves for kitsch but actually it was really spectacular. Entering the yawning mouth of the cave the temperature quickly drops as you are enveloped in darkness. Massive, incredible, rock formations, intricately patterned by centuries upon centuries of water flow, loom to either side of the pitch-black waters being quietly parted by the boat.

I let my imagination wander and at times felt like I was being peacefully rowed to my just desserts along the silent river Styx. 🙂

I didn’t bring my camera along that day, but I don’t think any photo would be able to convey the amazing feeling of being that deep in the earth or the beauty of the natural rock sculpture anyhow – you’ll just have to use your imagination! 😉

Little things I want to remember:

–       We saw numerous churches along the riverside as we explored the area. We didn’t find out any information about this influx of Christianity in the countryside, but it was fun and funny to see the familiar shapes of spires and crosses as we poked around.

–       The arrival of western tourists to the area already seemed to be making its mark on the locals. We were greeted with enthusiasm by village kids who knew only two words in English and used them with great gusto (and repetition): “Hello money!”

–       The sound of the baby buffalos calling out to their mothers across the rice fields. So cute! 🙂

–       Stopping at a random “restaurant” for a coffee on the way to Phong Nha cave. The woman who ran the place was very sweet and her two young grand kids were adorable. I liked the random chicken in a box on the shelf that would occasionally poke its head over the edge to check out the action at my table.

–       The sight and sounds of a large, chatty flock of ducks being “herded” home across wet fields each night as the sun sunk colorfully below the mountains.

–       The gorgeous sunset moped ride to the bus station – getting to see a thin new moon rise up over the fields as we wound along the curvy roads. Beautiful! (And much more fun than the subsequent hours spent waiting at the road-side bus stop watching bus after bus pass by while ours was two hours late!)

DSC 0151
“Hello money!”

DSC 0154
Farmer lost in a sea of green

DSC 0162
Rice close up

DSC 0175

DSC 0212
Heading home with the day’s harvest

DSC 0221

DSC 0222
Sunset

(Lonely Planet descriptions of places we were considering using as pit stops included encouragement such as “Most people seem to be passing through the dismal town on their way elsewhere…” “There’s no reason to linger in Lao Bao…” “Quant Tri was once an important citadel city, but little of its old glory remains” “The sales pitch can be relentless, even intimidating. Some rowers have refused to budge until visitors purchased something.” (this for one of the more beautiful landscapes they recommended visiting) “Despite attempts to prettify the place with trees and parks, this is an industrial city through and through. There are precious few reasons to stop here…” It wasn’t all like this, but sometimes we got the feeling the authors of this particular LP didn’t actually like the country they were writing about very much!)