Stray New Zealander Keys continues to make us all jealous as she travels on Stray’s very first Vietnam trip… We left Dong Hoi at 7am knowing that today was going to be the longest travel day of the trip.
Most people slept a bit more in the van and we stopped for breakfast a couple of hours into the journey. As it was still remarkably chilly everybody ordered pho bo (beef noodle soup) or pho ga (chicken noodle soup). As a soup lover, I love having noodle soup for breakfast every day.
Just before lunchtime, we stopped at a place called Cam Lo. It’s a Vietnamese beach resort town, however as we were there in the middle of winter, hardly any businesses were open. Nevertheless, we pulled up by an impressive statue right on the seafront and took a break.
Naomi and I couldn’t resist trying out a fishing basket. These ingenious vessels are made from bamboo with a tar coating. Because they are not technically a boat, they are exempt from government tax, and therefore a popular choice amongst fishermen along the coast. We had seen them for a previous couple of days but finally had an opportunity to try one out as there was one upside down drying out so we whipped it over, finding it surprisingly heavy and jumped in for an impromptu photo session. Given that it is completely round, I imagine steering it must be a nightmare but we didn’t get to try it out on the water.
After a brief break in the sun, we piled back into the van and headed off up the coast. Driving through Vietnam feels like driving through an endless town or village; they have taken urban sprawl to a new level but I guess you have to fit 90 million people somewhere. Sometimes you get out into the open fields but for the most part, there are always houses, bikes and people around. One would assume there would also be restaurants but on this day, although we passed many signs for food, we found nothing suitable. We would pull up outside only to see that the place was either not functioning as a restaurant, having a day off or had just been simply abandoned, leaving only the sign outside as a remnant of a former heyday.
The quest for food heated up at about 2.30pm we finally found a place that looked clean, had tables and Hang asked them to whip up some food. A short while later steaming dishes were placed on our table and everybody tucked in, glad to give the snacks a rest for a while and have some ‘proper food. It was at times like this that we realised we were well off the beaten tourist trail, albeit still on State Highway One. Many tours fly between Hanoi, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh; with Stray we were experiencing the authentic off the beaten track Nam and this resulted in many interesting sites and lots of local food en route.
We rocked into Ninh Binh about 7pm to one of the sweetest guesthouses en route. By now it was really cold as the sun had gone down and I was glad of every layer I had with me, which included a beanie and thermal top. We met downstairs for dinner but didn’t stay out late as the outside temperature of about 9 degrees called us to our warm beds.
The following day the first surprise of the morning was the beautiful view from our guesthouse. As we had arrived after dark we were thrilled to see there were limestone hills all around and we enjoyed an epic vista from the top floor of our accommodation. After what was hands down the best breakfast on tour we had a leisurely 9am departure and after a short drive found ourselves in the Cuc Phuong National Park.
Limestone mounds and hills dotted the landscape as far as the eye could see with years of erosion have carved out unique structures. We stopped for some photos and then arrived at the Primate Centre.
Vietnam is home to numerous species on the endangered wildlife list and we were lucky to see a number of them at the primate and turtle centre. The primate centre is home to about 150 individuals across 15 species including monkeys, gibbons and langurs. Many of them are brought to the centre as the result of trafficking or if found injured and it takes about 5 years to rehabilitate them back into the wild.
After hanging out with the monkeys, we then moved to the turtle centre. Both marine and land turtles are endangered in Vietnam as for many centuries they have been considered a delicacy. One is worth about a month’s wages and you can see why people risk imprisonment and taking species to the brink of extinction to do so. Even our local guide Hang, who is obviously well-educated, said she had no idea the plight of the turtle was so dire in her country. Education and conservation programmes are being introduced throughout the country but it is wonderful to travel with Stray and be shown the realities of conservation efforts around the world.
After our visit to the national park, we stopped at a nearby town and Audrey and Hang helped the local chefs cook up a storm. It is not uncommon to find venomous animals macerated in rice whiskey at local restaurants in case you want a power shot to aid digestion or (allegedly) virility. After a delectable lunch, we headed off to Mai Chau.
Some hours later and finding ourselves in the middle of nowhere, somebody requested a bathroom stop. We ended up stopping by this cane field and were contemplating going bush when after a short conversation with Hang the cane field owner invited us to use his bathroom instead. Audrey came out saying it was the best bathroom stop ever and I’d have to agree although for the record we did find western toilets most places we went in Vietnam in stark contrast to neighbouring countries. Furthermore, we were able to try some fresh cane, which was both juicy and delicious.
All in all another great day in Nam and before long we were in Mai Chau, our second homestay of the tour.