I booked my ticket to Da Nang by the sea. It’s barely 100 kilometers away, but the trip will take upwards of three hours. That tells you a bit about the state of the roads and highways out here.
The bus is late. Of course it is. Everything is late in this country. Even if they wanted to be on time, I can’t imagine a scenario where a bus can easily navigate it’s say through these narrow, dusty, scooter infested streets.
I’ve noticed that distances don’t make much sense anymore. People talk of a 10 Kilometer drive as if it’s a day trip. By scooter, it often is. The lesser used roads, that is to say not the main highways frequented by trucks and cars, but the smaller ones only wide enough for two scooters to pass each other, can be utterly dismal. Slowing to a crawl to pass a half kilometer of busted up concrete that looks like ocean corral can take quite a bit of time.
As for what kind of bus I’ll be riding, I have no idea. Visions of an over crowded school bus, filled with caged chickens and screaming children filled my head even as I walked out of the hotel lobby to the bus. Fortunately, I’m pleasanty surprised.
The bus is built unlike anything I’ve seen. The interior looks like it’s made out of bunk beds. Three rows of low flat seats, each one separated by an aisle, spacious enough to stretch out your feet and nearly lie down. Since we’re not sitting in chairs but on cushions, it gives the bus enough room to have double decks of seats. Even with a row of people above me, kind of like how I would imagine sleeper cars on trains. It’s quite spacious and comfy, even if there’s no way an adult could hope to stand up anywhere in here.
After riding in the back of motorcycle over dirt roads, sitting on tiny red plastic chairs and sleeping on the floor, this bus is the single most comfy thing I have planted my assignment on in days.
We drive through the countryside, passing some of the really poor parts of Vietnam. Much of Hue was run down and in shambles and these small roadside towns fare no better, with piles of garbage burning out front and debris from fallen homes laying wherever it fell.
Further on , tire fire burn in fields, beyond the rows of rice and corn. Heavy black smoke rolls across the countryside. Communist flags and murals adorn the walls and rooftops of gateways leading down to tattered and near deserted lots. A two story house is propped up with bamboo branches. The roof a patchwork of corrugated steel sheets and blue tarps. They use the same style of artwork we saw in Russia in the 1920s onwards. Happy prosperous workers, smiling and looking ahead, flanked by golden rays against a red back drop, the hammer and sickle close at hand.
We drove through the mountains. Jungle on one side, threatening to spill onto the highway and reclaim what once belonged to it, and green valleys and red rock gorges on the other. It would be pristine and gorgeous if not for the heaps of garbage that dot the road side like painted on margins separating us from the wild. We pass through more small towns, some no more than a scattering of shanties, stray dogs and banana trees, others with the occasional villa, painted in bright pastel blue, pink or yellow. Every home we pass seems to be selling something to the traveller: gas from muddy looking jerry cans, oil, tea, chips and plenty of Dasani water bottles. The roadside past each town is always heavily littered.
Da Nang. What a difference.
Vietnam is divided into three areas by culture and dialect: North, Central and South. Hue is the capital of central Vietnam and even though Da Nang is hardly a 100 km away, its considered one of the major cities of the South. Separated by massive mountains, accessible through a several kilometer long tunnel running beneath them, this city couldnt be any more different and still be considered part of the same country.
Where Hue looks the near absurdist mix of the tragic aftermath of a warzone followed by a the tragic aftermath of a parade, Da Nang is relatively clean and well maintained. There is noticeable urban planning at work with plenty of gardens and walkways with manicured hedges. There are sidewalks, that can be walked on. By pedestrians. Traffic seems to moderately respect the traffic signals and even slow at the crosswalks (but never stop, God forbid). There is little honking in the city, and only the mandatory few who drive on the wrong side of the road.
That reminds me – whenever you hop on the moto or scooter, you can pretty much expect to reach wherever you are going without having come to a complete stop once along the way. No one else does, so why should you?
Also, perhaps unremarkably since this is a bit of a getaway spot for tourists, a lot of people speak English quite well here. From my bus terminal, I got a ride to my hotel with a man who reeked of onions but was fluent in English. Along the way we saw sky scrappers, modern hotels and buildings, and some very gorgeous bridges.
The hotel I booked, the Water Lily Villa, was a little tough to find since it was tucked away on a small island in the Han River known as Island of the Green Villas. Its a rectangular plot of land with a park in the middle surrounded by private villages and homes. My hotel was one of these.
I was greeted at the gate by two friendly receptionists who showed me in. Immediately I was blown away by how well maintained this place was. The interior was decorated with wood sculptures, ceramics and had marble floors. The pool I was expecting to be little more than a tub of water is pristine and clean. Pool chairs surround it, with umbrellas and a little cabana tucked into the corner.
The receptionist led me to my room. We climb mahogany coloured open staircases across open concept landings. Each room is tucked away in a corner, with no more than one wall touching another room, making them all the more private.
My room was gorgeous, the first time I was truly blown away by a hotel space. It feels like a private room at a resort. Perfectly clean, furnished and filled with furniture and other comforts. The washroom was massive and bright, with a walk in shower large enought to accommodate four people comfortably if a shower party for four was ever on the agenda.
Back in the lobby I met the owner, a very friendly Vietnamese man who seemed to genuinely love life and want everyone else to do the same. He seemed to be on friendly talking terms with his whole staff, cracking jokes and even sharing meals with them that I noticd on occasion. He told me that he didn’t want his villa to be impersonal like every other hotel, but a place where you can speak to anyone openly and not have that awkward disconnect between the people who work here and the people who stay here. It was really a different, and inviting experience.
The day was late and I wasn’t sure what to do, but I noticed the bridge lit up at night, it’s lenthy suspension cables glowing red against the black sky. The receptionist told me the rest of the city is gorgeous at night, so she called me a cab and I took it to the water front, to the only destination in town I knew off the top of my head: My Khe beach.