9 March 2017 – Perth to Saigon via Kuala Lumpur
An early flight on Air Asia saw us heading off to Kuala Lumpur and a 2 hour stop over before going on to Ho Chi Minh City. Ahead of us was a two week sting on a Project Vietnam work site in Phuong Nha, a small town in the mountains inland of Dong Hoi on the Central Coast. We looked forward to a comfortable flight because we had been granted an extra seat for the small payment of $24. However, when we boarded the plane we found that there were so few passengers that we could have easily had as many seats as we wanted without paying the extra. It was a 300 seat aircraft and I estimate there were about 120 passengers. So nice to be flying outside of school holiday times.
We passed the time with watching movies, reading, snoozing and eating the tiny little meals that they serve you. The flight across from KL to Ho Chi Minh City was a bit of a sardine tin squeeze but fortunately it was a shade under two hours. The luxury of a pre-booked car at the airport got us into the Saigon traffic jams quickly and easily and the next 45 minutes was spent being surrounded by motorbikes. I really don’t understand why we rarely see any form of collision but somehow all the vehicles avoid actual contact. Later, we did notice that a lot of the young back packers around had serious bandages on legs and arms, signs of less fortunate experiences on motorbikes. With so much at stake and the state of the hospital services here, it defeats me why the young people do it yet they continue to think they can manage like a local. The fact is that most can’t.
We stayed at the iPeace Hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao district, or “Backpacker Street”. It has been 5 years since our last visit and little has changed. There are definitely more tourists but the chaotic streets and pushy street vendors are still a feature. The cheap eats and beer are still available but the variety has increased, with more western food and pizza type things invading the scene. Across in the central park, a big new shopping mall and modern food hall has opened, a far cry from the old Ben Thanh Markets where Asia’s most aggressive sellers still ply their trade.
With bags dumped and our thirst driving us, we hit the streets, only to discover Brendon, Roger and Anne-Marie in the Bee Saigon Restaurant. They were to head off to Phuong Nha the next day so we spent some time catching up and downing a few beers, some excellent chilli squid and a plate of amazing tempura vegetables. A trio of young German girls provided further entertainment before we returned to the hotel to crash for the night.
Our day in Saigon was mostly spent just wandering the streets, seeking the odd refreshment, buying some SIMS for our phones and relaxing. We continued to run into Aussies, including a couple from Bruce Rock, so proving that the World is a rather small place after all. A trip to the Ben Thanh Markets was the usual run of the sales girls, “I have shirt for you Mista. We have shirts. How many you want? Etc etc”. We were actually looking for a cheap Chinese fitness watch, like the $22 one I am wearing. Christine has a nice Garmin job on her wrist but somewhere in an airport transit it vanished. It was probably ripped off while putting on a backpack. However, it seems that the “FitBit” craze has yet to hit Vietnam and there was not a fitness band to be seen anywhere.
For our airport transfer we used an airport taxi service again, this time organised by the hotel. We paid them and were given a voucher for the driver. “Pay no more,” said the hotel girl. The said taxi arrived at the appointed time of 6:15 am and we set off, having a limited conversation on broken English. The driver was incredibly skilful, he had to be or he would have killed a great many people the way he drove. For some reason, we took a maze of back streets and alley ways, quickly being swallowed up by the teeming masses of life away from the tourist areas. One tends to forget just how many very poor people there still are in the big cities. The car came to a grinding halt and a plastic bag appeared through the window. The driver grinned and we set off again as he explained that he had diverted to pick up his breakfast from his “good wife”.
Approaching the airport, he asked us if we would pay the toll for him as a way of tipping him. This was a bit rude because we had already paid the toll in our fare but since the 30,000d ($1.80) was not going to break the bank we agreed. The cheeky guy then proceeded to park outside the airport control and walk us into the domestic area, meaning he got to pocket both the toll supplied to him through our fare and the “tip” we had given him. It’s called enterprise.
The flight to Dong Hoi was uneventful, if one discounts the extremely violent landing that had the aircraft slewing sideways for a while. There was much gripping of seats and many white faces, even though most passengers were of an oriental colouring. However, we all survived and our little group of six PVI participants were met by a driver and we were soon off into the mountain area. Here the mountains are not high, but very spectacular, being more in the nature of rugged heavily weathered limestone pinnacles called Karsts. Our destination, Phong Nha, is nestled on the banks of the Song River deep within the mountain system. The limestone system house a number of cave systems, the largest of which was discovered as late as 2004 and has proved to be the World’s longest cave system, clocking in at a little over 35km long.
The town is basically a one street affair, between the mountains and the river. The single street houses a great many small hotels and guest houses, along with the usual collection of restaurants and bars. However, the incredible beauty of the town’s location provides a completely different aspect. The surrounding karsts loom over the village and in the morning, charming mists thread their way between the peaks.
The caving attracts backpackers, which in turn downgrades the cuisine on offer from delightful local to “Western and chips”. However, if one is discerning, some good little eateries can still be found. The PVI contingent of around 33 was booked in at the Paradise Hotel, a newly refurbished but basic establishment. The staff proved very accommodating and the rooms were basic but clean and comfortable. We spent much of the weekend catching up with friends from past projects and getting to know the newcomers. A fair bit of effort was also put into sampling the food and beverage of the surrounds.
The PVI Project
Our work centres around a small school in the hamlet of Thanh Binh, about 7 kms down river from Phong Nha. The original plan involved the demolition of the two room school, which is very prone to flooding and the building of a replacement. However, the project has proven much bigger than anticipated, with the new structure now being a two storey building on an upraised platform. This will need a lot of work before it is ready for our team and a lot more money than we anticipated. Hence, the plan has now changed into a two or even three year plan. This year, PVI will pay for the major formwork and structure to first storey level and next year aim at completing the rest. Meanwhile, we will renovate the old structure using our extensive labour resources so that it can be used over the next three years or so while the new school is being built. As a team, we are good at renovation, which in this case will involve lots of scraping, painting and cleaning along with the installation of ceilings and a full electrical upgrade.
Because we have a large team of 35, we have also agreed to renovate the kindergarten at another nearby school. It is basically in good repair but could do with a damn good lick of paint. Later in the project, we took on yet another job, repainting a block of four classrooms at a primary school a kilometre of so from our main job.
Each day, both teams pile into a couple of mini buses and bump our way across a winding mud filled road to the work site. The road generally follows the Song River, which provides rich growing opportunities along a narrow flood plain. Numerous houses are strung out along its length, surprisingly modern and well constructed. Remnants of the old bamboo and woven grass structures can still be seen but new structures abound. The area is strongly Catholic and we pass several huge churches, one with an incredible blend of traditional and an oriental architectures. Beyond the road, the country generally rises steeply into forested mountains with few houses. Once on site, we are pretty much stuck out there for the day.
We work hard, have plenty of laughs, and somehow manage to communicate with the teachers and local construction workers. The kids are relentless with their waving and calling out “Hellooo”. There are just so many times one can reply. You can be engrossed in a task to find a child at your elbow who will announce their presence with a “hello”. This will be followed a few minutes later by another greeting, then another and so on. The children who used to come around the kindergarten site were lovely and even joined in the work at ties, painting and using the “Gerni”. The local security man was far less tolerant of children. He would chase them around with a stick, sometimes dabbed in paint. The children fled in all directions when he appeared. The kids up at the primary school were different. They seemed to act in a pack and mobbed us on several occasions. Their demands for money were the first I have ever heard from children in Vietnam. The staff at the kindergarten were wonderful, full of good cheer and laughter. They often worked with us and liked to cook us some little treats for afternoon tea. Up at the Primary School, the children were still in attendance while we worked and so the teachers were still busy, yet they seemed more distant than the kindy staff.
After work, most people head for the comfort of a warm shower before moving around the town to shop for supplies, find a place to catch a drink or sometimes just find solitude with a book for a bit. We had a few favourite little establishments where we would have a beer and chips or spring rolls. Our favourite haunt was the Tuan Ngoc Restaurant, named after the couple who own it. The food was enjoyable but the most pleasure came from talking with them and learning a little about life in Phong Nha. Tuan had been raised here and Ngoc had come from nearby Dong Hoi. Tuan work overseas in Taiwan, Thailand, Kuwait and Qatar to raise enough money to start a restaurant. Both speak good English and expressed the gratitude of the local people for the work that PVI is doing in the district. I was horrified when Tuan told me that flooding is an annual occurrence, with five floods coming through last year, two in October and three in December. They get a little warning, with around a day and a half of rain being enough to cause flooding. Last year, he cleared out the restaurant, moving everything to a multi-storey hotel across the road. The floods filled the restaurant to a height of about 1.5m. He cleaned up, brought everything back, put out the open sign, then the next lot came. The resilience of the people is amazing.
As the evening wears on, people head out to eat in small groups, although one time twenty of us descended on a small place that probably only catered for four or five. The panic was on and it looked like an episode of “My Kitchen Rules” as a young girl ran around trying to keep up with orders and the Aussie demand for a beer supply. They handled the episode remarkably well and the food tasted great. There were certainly plenty of smiles at the generous tips that were thrown around.
After dinner, the more adventurous ones on the team head down to the “Backpackers”, the Easy Tiger Pub, where beers are double the price of a restaurant but Happy Hour offers 2 for the price of of 1. Some go to dance, some (like us) go to dance by proxy, and others go to listen to the music, which is average but buoyed up by one of our team members playing on a drum with great finesse. We always went home before the headache stage arrived but some, both young and not so young, failed in this regard and occasionally over-indulged.
The work went well enough to be able to afford time off on the middle weekend. Most went caving, completing two or three caves over two days. We had done three of the caves last year on a visit here from Hue so we elected to head to Mooc Springs for a swim. A strong stream of clean and clear water issues forth from the base of a cliff face, suggesting the presence of yet another un-explored cave system within. The first part of the springs opens into a good sized pool that has been developed for swimming. The stream flow is strong so wearing of life vests is compulsory. A suspension bridge hangs across the pool at a height of around 4 metres but the middle part of the bridge is missing, meaning that one has to jump. A surrounding net ensures that being swept downstream on surfacing is prevented. I climbed up to have a go and to my absolute dismay, Christine followed. Somehow, she managed to negotiate the suspension bridge, a feat made all the more remarkable by the fact that the foot rungs were spaced about two feet apart. I was even more amazed when she made the jump after only a small hesitation. This action signified the end to around 5 long standing phobias. Next up – skydiving! Because I was in the water, I couldn’t video the event so she opted to take another jump, followed by yet another when I found my video effort had failed. Truly an achievement.
The work went well, completing more than we set out to do. We left three schools with bright and fresh buildings and the work on the new flood-proof school is well advanced. The completion of the new building and its fitting out will form a large part of next year’s project. Everyone seems enthusiastic about the prospect of more work in Phong Nha, such is the friendliness of the people, the importance of the work and the exceptional beauty of the area.
At the end of our time in Phong Nha, we opted to spend a night in Dong Hoi, from where we would catch a flight back to Saigon. Dong Hoi is a small city of around 100,000 people situated on the mouth of the Song River. The ocean side sports some glorious white sand beaches and the locals hope to develop a tourist resort industry. The city itself is mostly low-lying, quiet and relaxed. Little of old Vietnam remains. The city was levelled by the US in 1965, with the only four structures remaining being a church bell tower, two gates to the old walled citadel and a clock tower.
We stayed at the Nam Long Hotel near the river front. The area provides a good variety of eateries and even a little night-life at the nearby Buffalo Bar. We walked the length of the foreshore to the local markets but the smells and odours of the vibrant wet market had us moving on before long. Dong Hoi is unspectacular but a lovely little spot to rest up and take it easy without the hustle and bustle of either Hanoi or Saigon. Quite a few tourists were using it as a base to visit the caves at Phong Nha but it would be more economical to stay in Phong Nha itself.
Our final days of the trip in Vietnam were spent back in Ho Chi Minh City at the Bee Saigon Hotel in Phạm Ngũ Lão. It is impossible to get sick of the attractions of the “backpacker” part of this bustling city. The street vendors, the bars, eateries and market stalls add a colour and vibrancy that almost rivals Hanoi. Unfortunately, for us it is the only part of Saigon that is exciting. The rest is just hot, busy and unremarkable by Asian standards.
Tomorrow, our European adventure begins, with a flight to Frankfurt in Germany via Moscow. The excitement is building.