BootsnAll Travel Network

Thanh Hoa: Where are we?

Our relief upon arriving at Thanh Hoa a little after 9pm, and finally being off that damn bus from the Vietnamese border, was tempered somewhat by the fact that it was raining, we were in a non-tourist town with no idea where we were, we hadn’t eaten since breakfast (save for some disgustingly buttery cookies), we had no idea if a bus would be going to Hanoi that night, or where it would go from, or if there was a hotel anywhere nearby.

As the four other travellers spoke to a taxi driver to try and explain that they wanted to go to a bus station (the bus had dropped us outside one particular bus station, but it was well and truly closed down for the night), Bec and I decided that we’d try and find a hotel and some much needed food. We resigned ourselves to staying in Thanh Hoa overnight, and getting to Hanoi the next day. Mercifully, just around the coner we spied the glowing neon sign of a hotel, and even more thankfully the rooms were decent and affordable.

Once we’d had a shower and skoffed down some pho (noodle soup. Yum) from a nearby street-stall, we took stock of our situation. We knew that our friends only had a couple of weeks to see the whole of Vietnam, so they couldn’t wait around for us in Hanoi too long. We also knew that after Hanoi they’d be heading south, and would no doubt stop in Hoi An; the World Heritage listed home of a thousand tailors. We were planning to head there ourselves after Hanoi, but now that we were already a quarter of the way there (Thanh Hoa was between Hanoi and Hoi An), it made way more sense to go from Thanh Hoa south to Hoi An, and wait there for our friends to catch up to us, rather than always being two days behind them.

Our next task then was to get a bus to Hoi An. Back at our hotel we attempted to get some info, a challenge made all the more difficult by the non-existence of English anywhere in Thanh Hoa (remember, this was definately not a tourist town). After much confusion, we resorted to drawing a picture of a bus, followed by an arrow pointing to the words Hoi An. This did the trick, to an extent – we still couldn’t actually communicate when we wanted to go, or where the bus left from, or any of those minor details that are sort of necessary to the whole travelling thing. Brainwave time – Bec remembered that our guidebook had some basic Vietnamese phrases in the back, and to our relief they included words like station, timetable, how much, what time, etc. Eventually, once we’d settled on the fact that we wanted to get the bus, and the wonderfully friendly, patient lady behind the reception desk understood that we wanted to go tomorrow, she came back with a suggestion – get the train.

And so it was that early the next morning we arrived at the Thanh Hoa train station. The train wouldn’t actually take us all the way to Hoi An, but would stop about 30km away at Da Nang. We’d been to Da Nang on our last Vietnamese visit, and knew that a taxi from Da Nang to Hoi An would only cost around ten bucks, so we had no problems with getting off the train there. Arriving at the station at 9am, we were told the first train to Da Nang wouldn’t leave until 1.30pm. Bugger. Then we were told by the friendly lady behind the ticket desk (for every money-hungry Vietnamese arsehole we encountered, at which point we’d be ready to spit on this country for the rest of our lives, an amazingly helpful, smiling, friendly local would save the day! Every time.) that this train only had hard seats left. Not good, folks, not good. This was a twelve hour train journey, that would hopefully involve a bit of peaceful shut-eye, and that wasn’t going to happen on a hard bench seat. The next train that had some soft, reclining seats left at 4.20pm, so we booked a couple of seats, and then wondered what the hell we were going to do for the next seven hours.

After sitting in the station and being stared at by the locals, we went in search of some internet, as it’d still been over a week since we’d made contact with our friends Kennedy and Kate who were probably in Hanoi wondering where the hell we were.

The friendly lady at the ticket desk, who spoke just enough English to help us dramatically, pointed us down the road, saying there was a place just thirty metres away. About a kilometre later, after asking a few locals and being pointed further down the road, we’d almost given up. We stopped outside a four-star hotel, maybe they’d know. I left Bec outside with our packs (we’d been walking in the heat with our heavy packs on our backs rather than leaving them at the station), and went inside, had a brief conversation with the reception desk, and then went out to Bec with the news.

I put on a glum face as I approached. “No good?” She enquired.
“Well, here’s the thing. I asked the guy if he knew where there was some internet, and he replied, ‘sure, just over there’. There’s a few computers in the lobby, which means we’ve found internet. Then, he came out with this chestnut, ‘internet for you, is free.'” Vietnam, I don’t know whether to love you or hate you.

We caught the train at 4.20pm. Soon after departing, the food cart came around, and everyone was served a meal of rice with vegetables and pork. Well, everyone except us. We were thoroughly ignored by the attendants, and watched with hunger as all those around us tucked into their food. We weren’t overly happy at this stage, it’d been a long and frustrating two days. But once again Vietnam came to the rescue.

I felt a tap on my arm, and looked down to see a piece of paper being handed to me by the local girl in the seat behind. It read ‘do you wonder why everyone else is eating? They asked everyone before you got on. I can help you get some food if you want.’ I smiled and showed Bec, who wrote a big “YES PLEASE” on the papaer before handing it back to the smiling girl. Soon, we were served some food, and the train ride just got a whole lot easier.

We were scheduled to get into Da Nang some time between 4am and 4.30am. The ipod alarm woke us at 4am, and we waited for our stop. At 5am, the train finally pulled into Da Nang, and off we got. We asked a taxi driver out the front to take us to Hoi An. “Sixty dollar!”
“Huh, what’s that? Sixty dollars?!?! Are you kidding? It’s ten dollars, I know, I’ve done it before!”
“Sixty dollar!”

We left the crazy taxi driver and caught a couple of motorbike taxis to the bus station – from there a bus to Hoi An An should cost less than a dollar. Upon arrival, we’d thought we’d try the taxi option again – there were a bunch of taxi drivers waiting outside the station.

“How much to get to Hoi An?”
“Fifty dollar!”
“What! Fifty dollars! But it’s only half an hour down the road. It’s ten dollars! I’ve done it before, I was here a year ago and it cost ten dollars!”
He arrogantly laughed in my face, “No no. 150km. Three hours. Fifty dollars!”
I turned to Bec in exasperation, “Fuck, this country drives me crazy!”
“C’mon, lets just get the bus.”

A tout approached us offering a bus to Hoi An, “How much?” I asked. “Five dollar for one.”
I was angry by now. The bus should cost less than a dollar, and this guy wanted five. I don’t often get angry, I can’t actually remember the last time I was really angry like I was right then. Frustrated, sure. But this went beyond frustration. These guys were blatantly trying to rip us off, and both of us were pissed off.

What we didn’t know at this point, and wouldn’t know for about another forty-five minutes, is that we were in the wrong fucking town. The train was running three hours late, unbeknownst to us of course, and instead of getting off in Da Nang, we’d gotten off in Hue, a city that was indeed a 150km three hour drive from Hoi An.

Bec went into the ticket office and asked about a ticket to Hoi An, but the lady simply waved her outside, saying she had to go through the touts. Locals stared at us as we sat and let our emotions cool down. They have no shame in staring in Vietnam – you catch their eye and rather than looking away like people would do in a Western country, they hold your gaze, and stare at you like you’re a zoo exhibit.

Eventually, despite our reluctance, we had to agree to the five dollar each bus ride. And so we crammed into the back of a minivan, and tried to rest on the expected half hour drive. I think the realisation that we’d screwed up royally hit us both around the same time. About half an hour in to the drive, just as I expected to be arriving in Hoi An, I began to see signs that filled me with dread; “Da Nang – 78km”, “Da Nang – 75km”, “Da Nang – 70km”.

Bec looked over at me with sad eyes, “Dave…… you think that maybe we actually got off in Hue?”

Fuck. I felt embarrased and foolish. But there was nothing to do but stare out the window for the next two-and-a-half hours and wait until we got to Hoi An.

The bus pulled up beside the highway, and the tout in the back thrust open the sliding door and poited at us, “HOI AN!”

We grabbed our bags and got off. As the bus sped away we were set upon by motorbike taxis. We had no idea how far out of Hoi An we were. It’s a pain in the arse trying to bargain with taxi drivers at the best of times, now we had little choice but to pay whatever they wanted. Defeated, deflated, tired and hungry, we hitched a ride on the back of the bikes, and I did my best to enjoy the feeling of the wind in my face.

It was about ten kilometres into town. Finally, with much relief, after another frustrating day of travel, we arrived at our hotel, got ourselves a room with hot water, cable tv, and a minibar. Shit, the hotel even had a pool. It was just what we needed.

The next day Hoi An would remind us exactly why we came to Vietnam, and all those frustrations to get there were totally worth it.

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