Photo of the day: The seating at The Espresso Station in Hoi An
Travel day again! I wanted to keep things simple, so I just had some tea and fruits for breakfast today. After breakfast, we return to the old town one more time to purchase some art! Actually, Aaron had his eyes on a painting since the first night we were here. We’ve been back to the same art gallery two times already. He plans to make the purchase today. We went back to the very simple “art gallery”, which was basically a small store with some paintings. The owner/artist was a quiet, humble Vietnamese man. After some negotiation, with the walking away technique (didn’t know you can do that for art as well), we had a deal and he diligently wrapped the canvas up in a construction tube.
Aaron, being very satisfied with his purchase, suggested we get some coffee. We went to a nice, quiet cafe in a serene alley (my kind of cafe – flashback SunnyHills and FYI Book Cafe), called The Espresso Station. I love how, like Morning Glory, there was a story of how the cafe was founded and it talked about how to the owner gave up her day job to pursue coffee, as it is her passion. I thought it was a nice touch. Aaron had the egg coffee and I wanted to try the iced coconut coffee. Both were amazing. The egg coffee was made with egg yolks mixed with condensed milk, a very interesting taste. The coconut coffee was really 90% coconut with small layer of coffee along with a frozen coconut slushie. It was different but very tasty. We didn’t stay long as Aaron had to figure out a way to send his painting home.
Another random travel tip: you can’t even trust convenience stores here. I wanted to buy some tissue and they quoted me something that was five times the price of what I’m used to paying in Vietnam! I was like “What? So expensive!”, then had to ask them to reduce the price to a more reasonable level, again with the walking away technique. Wasn’t expecting to do all that just for a few pack of tissues but you can’t be too trusting here!
Aaron had a lot of paperwork to fill out at the post office so went to grab some Banh Mi for our train ride, just like how we used to on our Eurotrip train rides. Banh Mi Phuong was just around the corner so I went there. It’s become famous since Anthony Bourdain made an appearance here quite a few years ago. First impression, unlike the smiley, happy people serving Mr. Bourdain in his video, the service was not good. It wasn’t that busy when I got there and I went up to order 2 sandwiches but the guy was not impressed and told me to “wait one minute”. It looks like there was a lull for some reason, maybe they were missing an ingredient. After standing there for around 10 minutes, I realized that there were a few flies just hanging out on the meats. That’s what did it for me. Business started up again and people who came after me started ordering again, and they started making their sandwiches, even though I already ordered with one of the employees already. That was when I walked away. Sorry, Mr. Bourdain, I will have to pass on this one. Between the bad service and the flies, I just can’t.
So we rushed back to the hotel to check out before our ride was here to drive us to the Da Nang train station. Since I really had nothing to eat today except for fruits, I loaded up on snacks at the conveniently-placed store in the train station. I even bought some instant noodles as I read there was hot water on the train to use if needed. And then we waited. There were no signs to tell us which train was coming and apparently the trains here are not very punctual, so we relied on showing our ticket to the person by the door until they nodded their head instead of asking us to have a seat. It was only when we walked outside on the platform did we notice a whole row of stores and food stalls selling all sorts of snacks and meals! The ones inside the station was just the tip of the iceberg. While waiting for boarding, I was wondering why people were all rushing to line up even before the train arrived, since it was pre-assigned seating anyway. It became apparent once we got on the train that the upper shelves to hold the luggages were full so we ended up sandwiching our suitcases between our legs and the seat in front of us the whole time. I do not know what I would’ve done if my luggage was any bigger or if my legs were any longer. As soon as the train started again, the food cart came around with drinks, snacks and a big pot of something. I never found out what the something was because he only shouted things out in Vietnamese. This happened a few times throughout the ride, so maybe we didn’t need to load up on snacks at the train station. I did not use the bathroom but just walking by it on our way to our seats was enough to inform me to try to not use it if I do not need to. One of the main reasons we took the train during this leg of our trip was to see the beautiful coastal scenary between Da Nang and Hue.
A little more about the train – Vietnam Railways ran from south to north of Vietnam, all the way to the China, if you so please. We debated for a long time, while planning, whether we wanted to take the overnight train for some other parts of our trip, from HCMC to Da Nang, and then from Hue to Hanoi, but decided against it for several reasons. Bottom line was: it was actually more expensive to take the train than to fly during the times we were planning to take it, so we really couldn’t justify paying more for the longer (15+ hours), more uncomfortable travel method. Our short 2.5-hour journey between Da Nang and Hue was worth it though, for a small cost of ~$6.50 CAD per person for soft seats with AC. Aaron was very disappointed, however, that we were seated on the “wrong” side of the train and did not get to see much scenary. Unfortunately, those passengers seated on the other side were not too interested and mostly closed the curtains so they could sleep. It originally was very cold on the train and I regretted wearing shorts but half way through, I think the AC gave up because it became warmer and stuffier. Even though, the train was a bit loud, the rhythmic movement helped put me to sleep so maybe I could’ve slept well if I went on the overnight train.
We also found out that our hotel at Hue had free pick-up service from the train station, according to TripAdvisor, so we gave them a call to arrange that. We arrived in Hue in no time and we greeted with 2 representatives from the hotel on 2 motorbikes! I guess that’s how we’re getting to the hotel then! I was curious how they were going to carry our luggages but they easy just nudged it in front of them. I, again, can’t imagine what they would do if our luggages were any bigger. We got to our hotel in no time and were welcomed with some fruits and smoothies. The service in Vietnam is commendable given we haven’t even been staying at expensive hotels! This is a 2.5 star hotel but I’m already so impressed that the facilities are super clean and the service is amazing! It is also the first place in Vietnam which shows a strong commitment to staying green, with separate bins for paper, plastics and trash. I’m impressed.
By this time, we only had fruits and chips in our system for the whole day so we were desperate to get some real food. We read on multiple sources, including Tripadvisor, FourSquare and Rough Guides, that we should go to Nina’s Cafe, so what reason did we have not to go there? It was a cute outdoor cafe located in a random alley. It was definitely geared towards tourists but so was Morning Glory and it was good. We started off with some Banh Beo – similar the Banh Bao we had in Hoi An but in little pancakes form instead of dumpling form. It was good but I preferred the Banh Bao at Morning Glory. Aaron ordered the Bun Thit Nuong but he was disappointed. The way they made it here was a little different, the pork was tougher, flavoured differently, and there weren’t as many herbs. It was served with Nuoc Leo, a peanut sauce, instead of the Nuoc Mam we were used to. I had to order the Bun Bo Hue since that was the main reason I came to Hue. Bun Bo Hue is my favourite Vietnamese dish and I was on a mission to try it from the source! When my Bun Bo Hue arrived, I was pretty disappointed. It did not have the red colour and strong spicy, flavourful scent I’m used to. The meat was limited to 2 beef balls and a few slices of beef. Where is the pork blood, Cha Lua and ox tail? It took me a while to make sure I didn’t order the wrong thing because it looked more like Pho to me. I took a sip of the soup and it didn’t taste like Pho. It had the lemongrass flavour that I expect from Bun Bo Hue but that was the only resemblance. It wasn’t bad tasting but it did not scream authentic to me. There was no spice at all. I am now committed to find better Bun Bo Hue elsewhere. Tripadvisor, FourSquare and Rough Guides have all failed me! I trust no one!
We ended the night with just getting some work done and it was kind of nice. I realized a few things so far on our trip. For long(ish)-term travelling, I cannot expect to feeling like “I’m on vacation” all the time. For example, I probably shouldn’t be trying to jam pack my day and stay out every night. I should also not try to eat 3 huge meals a day or have a (sugary or alcoholic) drink with every meal. Our goal will be trying to “live” more and “vacation” less but of course, having “vacation” moments here and there.