Traveling by train
Traveling by sleeper train from Nihn Bihn to Dong Hoi was an adventure, even during the daytime. We booked 1stclass soft sleepers because they have only 4 beds in a cabin instead of 6 in 2ndclass, where the beds are hard. The average Vietnamese is maybe 1,5m and weighs 50 kg, and if even most Vietnamese advise you to go for 1stclass, you really should :-).
First hour or so, the journey went perfect, just the 2 of us in the cabin, clean bed sheets, climate control, USB and even 220v chargers all in good shape. We we’re jiggling along at a moderate but steady speed.
About 3 stops from Nihn Bihn our ‘room mates’ arrived, a young Vietnamese couple with 2 children, aged less than 5 years old, so they travel for free like on the plane. So our cabin got a just a ‘little’ more full, their kids, suitcases, cardboard boxes, bags, food stash for the journey, luckily no living or dead animals though. About half the trip things were pretty much ok, sleeping a bit, all nice and quiet, but as soon as the kids were getting bored, things became a little loud and after a while, it felt like we were animals in the zoo. People, mostly children, came by to stare at us, some taking pictures, some even touching to check if we were real. So now ‘we know’ why quite some travelers prefer a tourist bus or a private car.
We arrived around 8PM in Dong Hoi, only 40 minutes late, luckily our ride was still waiting outside the railway station.
Farmstay in Phong Nha
After a 45 minutes drive, a warm welcome by the staff and a late, actually just in time dinner, and a very nice first impression we went to bed. We were hammered! After Hanoi and Tam Coc, this place was…. quiet and peaceful, and really on the countryside. The sound of a water buffalo and the crowing of a rooster waked us up. We were advised by a fellow member of girls that scuba on FB to visit Farmstay. You won’t find them on booking or Agoda.
Ben the owner, an Australian guy, lost his heart and found love in Vietnam. He build the place from the first brick together with his wife Bich 8 years ago. In the meantime they are participating in some other business initiatives like Easy Tiger Hostel and employ 250 to 300, mostly youngsters under 23, and they are still expanding. It’s nice to see that there are people like Ben and Bich, real entrepreneurs, 8 years ago there was noting and now there is an area called Farmstay Village :-), because people started building houses, small shops, and all kind of businesses in the surroundings of the ‘Farmstay’.
The place is like they advertise it, it’s not a 4 or 5 star hotel, it’s not fancy, it’s not posh, but: the scenery is fabulous, the porch has an amazing view, the rooms have all you need, hot shower, climate control, clean and a good bed to sleep in, the staff is warm and always ready to help or advise you, the food is delicious, the beers are cold 🙂 and it’s quiet. During our stay we visited the Phong Nha caves, which are pretty close and took a bicycle ride trough the fields. The caves are really worth a visit, not only because their beauty but also because of war stories that come with it.
Seen our last train adventure we decided to travel by bus this time. Not just any kind of bus, no, the ‘DMZ’ bus. This bus has a fixed route from Dong Hoi to Hue and back every day. It runs at 7 am sharp, stops at the Vinh Hoc tunnel complex in the DMZ zone and at the Bridge that connects north and south. Afterwards it drops you of at your hostel or hotel. 7 am sharp turned out to be Vietnamese sharp, so more like 7.45 am. But hey, we were not in a rush so just took another coffee whilst waiting for it. We were quite happy that the bus was not completely full because the seats were Vietnamese size, not my size anyway, which in Vietnamese must be like XXXXXXXL or 7 XL I guess. But hey we both had 2 seats, which was perfect. Meanwhile the scenery had completely changed, coming from the country side with lot’s of green we now crossed an area which had small pine trees and white sand. Looking a bit like some kind of desert quite a strange sight, which we didn’t expect. When we stopped at the tunnels were locals were hiding and living for 6 years during the war we got a local guide explaining about the complex.
Some facts & figures:
- 28km of tunnels
- Average height 1m40 to 1m60
- Small rooms for families were about 4m2
- Only 2 air shafts
- 1 Kitchen
- 1 toilet
- 600 people were living there
- 50 babies were born there (45 still alive)
We took a short ‘walk’ of like 200m in one of these tunnels, just to get an idea of the conditions these people were living in during that time and I have to admit, I think I would have killed myself after a very short time already. This must have been horrible, all these people, the limited amount of space, the smell, the smog from the kitchen.
Our 2nd stop was at the bridge over the Ben Hai River that was destroyed during the war and where northern and southern Vietnam was separated as a consequence of the Geneva Convention in 1954. There are statues on both side of the river and crossing that bridge by foot felt really special.
The DMZ bus dropped our hotel, which was in the middle of the back packers area in Hue. Very convenient, many of nice bars and really good and cheap restaurants were within walking distance. We really liked the atmosphere in Hue, not too big and there is the ancient Imperial City, which you must visit.
The Imperial City is quite big; so big that we almost spend half a day walking around at our own pace. It’s unbelievable, so many temples, trees and lovely gardens. At this the moment there’s quite some maintenance works going on, but it is still well worth a visit.
We were staying in the Moonlight hotel, which has 12 floors, an amazing view on the city at the rooftop and a pool on the 5thfloor enjoy a Jacuzzi and make new travel plans while the sun is going down.
- Farmstay Phong Nha: if you want to see some more of the countryside in Vietnam in between moving from one city to another, the Farmstay is really worth while a visit. Close to nature and within bicycle, scooter or car distance from the caves in the neighborhood.
- DMZ bus: you can book them all around the area, they’re probably not the · cheapest, but you get a ride through a really nice part of Vietnam and you travel from north to south and get some interesting background on the area. (500.000 VND)
- Hot Tuna restaurant & bar: Delicious food and very cheap cold Huda beers. You can sit outside near the street or upstairs. One of the waitresses, Nho Lan, welcomes you in English, French, Dutch, German, Vietnamese and probably some other languages as well.
- Kangaroo bar and restaurant: very nice local specialties, like the BBQ pork rolls you wrap in rice paper with fresh vegetables. Also the BBQ chicken is very good, chicken in general, tastes like chicken should taste in Vietnam, much better than at home.
- Moonlight hotel: nice rooftop views, nice rooms, some have a bathtub, which can be nice if you’re on a longer trip. Amazing breakfast with both Asian and European food, and good cheese 🙂