5th FEBRUARY 2019
The noise of New Year fireworks would ordinarily have kept me awake last night, but my poor, tired brain was so addled with alcohol that I slept like a contented baby. I wander downstairs to find the old Canadians asking Tung if he’ll cook some breakfast for them. He’s reluctant, partly because it’s New Year’s Day, but mainly because it’s Candy who normally does the cooking and she’s gone out. In the end he compromises and offers to rustle up some pancakes or omelettes. I’m listening to all this and figure that if he’s already making pancakes then I might as well put in an order too. Shortly afterwards four rolled-up banana pancakes arrive, drizzled with chocolate sauce and delivered on the same scorching, iron hot plates that the omelettes are served on. They are filling and sweet and just the sort of comfort food I need in my delicate state. It turns out that Tung is a decent cook after all.
After her New Year disappearing act, Moon the dog is lying asleep on the kitchen floor without a care in the world. Tung couldn’t find her last night amidst the din and commotion of fireworks, so resumed his search first thing this morning. He located her down by the river, tired but unharmed, and brought her back home on his motorbike. I leave them all to their day and go for a walk into town, across the bridge which acted as a launching pad for last night’s fireworks. With it being New Year’s Day there’s hardly anywhere open, so I wander round haphazardly for a while trying to find somewhere for food or even just a coffee. I eventually walk a huge, aimless circle, but end up back on the riverside eating spring rolls about 100 metres from where I first started.
When I get back to the Homestay I tell Candy where I’ve been for lunch, which leads to her recommending one of her friend’s restaurants for dinner tonight. I take her advice and traipse back across the river after dark to find a pizza / pasta restaurant, whose tables are occupied exclusively by Westerners. I’m sure Candy’s intention was to make me feel at home, but these surroundings feel a little odd after weeks of dining in Plastic Chair Cafes and eating local food. In addition, this place is operating on a strictly limited menu tonight due to a lack of available ingredients over the Tết Holiday. My first few meal requests are knocked back and I’m restricted to settling for a bland, insipid spaghetti Bolognese.
As well as the underwhelming food, I begin to realise that I’m not enjoying being in a solely Western environment again. To me it seems pointless coming all the way to South-East Asia, only to eat Western food in a Western style restaurant surrounded by other Westerners. I’m sitting here because of Candy’s recommendation, but I’d much rather be eating cheap local food in a little Plastic Chair Cafe. It’s my first Western meal since arriving in Vietnam, and it’s not something I’ll be doing again in a hurry.
When Candy asks my opinion of her friend’s restaurant, I decide just to be honest and tell her I thought the food was pretty average. She looks really sorry because it was her recommendation, and this in turn makes me feel bad. However, I cheer her up immediately by telling her that the restaurant food wasn’t as good as her cooking. Then, as if trying to verify my claim, she says that there’s still some grilled squid left over from their family meal and would I like to try some. Again, not a difficult decision. My God, they are delicious ! Tender, with a slightly sweet taste and served with hot dipping sauce. Tung and Candy have made me feel right at home staying here, and it’s round about this point I decide I’m going to extend my time in Đồng Hới by one extra day.
The Homestay is strangely quiet when I go downstairs for breakfast the following morning. The Canadians have all left and the trio of French teachers are off somewhere on motorbikes hired from Tung and Candy’s vast fleet. The only folk left are myself and a young Chinese woman who doesn’t say much. I go for a morning walk over the river again, returning around lunchtime to find Tung and Candy asleep on a thin mattress on the kitchen floor. This is where they sleep most of the time, with all the Homestay rooms given over to paying guests. I’ve also noticed that it’s a typically Vietnamese trait to have a siesta in the early afternoon. This is hardly surprising, given that most of the country seems to be up with the sun and running around at 6.00am.
In the afternoon I walk right along the beach to the end of the narrow spit of land where the river meets the sea. It feels so good to be walking barefoot on the sand and I’m surprised by how pleasantly warm the sea feels when I amble along the water’s edge, bearing in mind that it is still winter. On the shore I find a brilliantly white spiral shell, about ten centimetres long, which goes to Tung and Candy’s daughter when I return to the Homestay. The little kid looks genuinely excited by her present. I can tell just how chuffed she is because the shell is still in her hand two hours later.
In the kitchen, Candy is hand-feeding Moon’s five puppies with milk from a bottle. She tells me ‘We make them all big and then we put them on the barbecue !’ I look at her, half smiling, to see if she’s serious or not, but she remains expressionless and gives nothing away. She carries on with her feeding, poker faced, until she finally bursts out laughing and says that she’s joking. I’m quite relieved as she had me worried there for a moment. Then I ask the dreaded question – ‘So, Umm, DO you eat dog ?’ She tells me she doesn’t and that it’s more a throwback to the Vietnam War, when people had to eat anything they could get their hands on just to survive. Apparently some older Vietnamese will still eat dog, but it doesn’t happen much now with the younger generation. Personally, I like to try weird new foods as much as I can when I travel, but I don’t think I’d feel comfortable eating dog. Everyone has a line they won’t cross when it comes to food, and I’m realising that my line would be the consumption of pets.
I spend a couple of hours chatting to Candy, with me finding out about Vietnamese life while she asks questions about the UK. The conversation moves towards cemeteries, as there’s one located just behind the Homestay on what is no more than a patch of sandy wasteground. She tells me that around seven to ten years after a burial in Vietnam, the coffin is dug up and the bones are compacted into a smaller sized package. In a country of almost 100 million people this is probably a sensible space-saving policy, but it does still feel a bit wrong to be exhuming the dead and compacting them. Candy, on the other hand, is amazed there are cemeteries in the UK where some of the older graves have lain untouched for centuries.
Later that evening I’m asked to come downstairs and help a staggeringly drunk guy into his house next door. He’s barely able to stand, let alone walk, but somehow he’s managed to drive a motorbike home. Myself and Candy walk him towards his front door, while all the time his wife stands in the doorway laughing at him. We keep his motorbike helmet on his head all the way up the path, just so that he won’t smack his head too hard if he does fall. Although I can’t deny there’s a comedy aspect to the whole episode, it’s also a reminder for me to be wary of drink-drivers while cycling during the remaining days of Tết Holiday.
Tomorrow I’ve booked accommodation in a place called Đông Hà, which will mean my first 100km ride of this trip. My plan was to actively avoid doing 100km days in Vietnam, but the limited accommodation choices during Tết Holiday has left me with little option. The upside is that my two days off in Đông Hới should see me fresh and ready to go.