My bus for Quy Nhon picked me up from my hostel around noon. The bus was actually a mini van and I was crammed in with about 10 Vietnamese people. The trip was supposed to take around 5 hours, getting me to Quy Nhon around dinnertime. I wasn’t sure where the bus would drop me off, so I was kind of just hoping for the best that it would be walking distance to my hostel. I had a rough idea of where my hostel was and pinpointed it on my offline map just to make sure I didn’t get lost.
It was a long, bumpy ride, but an interesting one. The mini van did function as a bus – people got on and off at what seemed like random spots along the road. The driver’s assistant had a handwritten list of people getting on and off, and everyone was ready and waiting when the van got to their spot, so the van never came to a full stop.. Just opened the door for people to hop on and off. About a month and a half into my trip, I finally bought some headphones and got to enjoy my music for the first time since leaving home, so I didn’t mind the trip at all.
When we arrived in Quy Nhon, I was happy to see that the bus station was actually very close to my hostel – less than a mile and walkable even for someone who hates the heat as much as I do with a big backpack. I walked toward the spot on my map, through a quiet little town that seemed to be home to the poorer locals rather than the tourist area. When I got to where I thought my hostel should be, there was nothing but a coffee shop and a school. I asked someone if he knew where my hostel was, showing him the address, but he didn’t seem to know and didn’t speak any english. I walked around for awhile and was just about to give up and go to a coffee shop when I saw it – not even close to where I’d been looking. I wasn’t sure if it was my hostel, because there was no sign, so I walked in to the open bar area and was about to pull up my screenshot of the hostel’s name and address when the man at the bar said “are you Janine?” I was SO relieved! The staff was so nice from the start – they made me a “welcome drink” and then sat with me in the bar/cafe and explained to me how to get to the beach, what there was to do, etc.
By the time I finished checking in and got settled in my room, it was about 6pm and I decided to walk to the beach before it got dark – this was the first beach town of my trip, so I was excited to check it out and see where I’d be spending my next couple of days. It was only about 2 blocks from my hostel and I was already so happy with the change in weather from Hoi An – it was still sunny and warm, but there was a wonderful sea breeze that made being in the sun somewhat tolerable. When I got to the beach, it was full of life and excitement – all of the locals were there swimming or playing in the sand with their kids and the main area was full of street food vendors and music. The view from the beach was incredible – white sand, ocean waves, big ships off in he distance, a rolling green hill to one side, and the city center to the other. The beach sort of curved around, with the area I was in right in the middle, so I had the perfect panoramic view. I sat up on the wall along the beach people watching for awhile before I decided to stop at a restaurant I had passed on the way for dinner. It was right by the beach and had a nice looking outdoor patio, so I figured I’d give it a try.
When I got there, no one spoke english, and the menu was mostly in Vietnamese with no pictures. I ordered something that seemed familiar – seafood hot pot, which I LOVE back home – and as soon as they started bringing out plates and silverware I started getting worried that I’d accidentally ordered a multi-course meal again. They brought out a place of vegetables and leafy greens, a plate of bread, a HUGE plate of noodles, and then came the seafood. There was what looked like squid, clams, big prawns with eyes and legs, and HUGE chunks of some kind of fish – all raw. They brought me the huge hot pot full of broth and pineapple (?) and I was terrified. The thing that scared me the most was the fish – I didn’t know what it was and it had huge, thick bones and the outside was hard to the touch. I decided to give the meal a try and stuck to the squid and prawns. I put some in the boiling broth for what seems like an appropriate amount of time, then scooped it into my little bowl on top of some noodles. I tried the squid thinking it would be really chewy/rubbery, but it was still pretty mushy… Not a good start. I wasn’t quite sure how to break into the prawn to get its eyeballs, legs and outer shell off, and I looked behind me and there was a whole table full of Vietnamese people watching and laughing at my struggle. I decided to just go at it with my hands and pulled it apart until there was nothing left but something edible looking. Also mushy. I put the rest of the prawns and calamari in the pot and started to panic. I felt like I was just asking for food poisoning with seafood that I was cooking myself. I really just wanted to leave. So, I started grabbing the chunks of fish and putting them in the pot as well (seriously… so gross how hard the fish was on the outside, and how thick the bones were). Once everything was successfully hidden in the pot, I put the lid back on and asked for my bill. I paid and basically ran out of there without waiting for my change.
Now terrified that I was going to be sick with food poisoning AGAIN from the two bites of food I’d had, I stopped at a Banh Mi stand (a delicious kind of Vietnamese sandwich on a baguette) to put something else in my stomach. The stand was run by the cutest little lady who didn’t speak english, so she just held out a tray of meat options for me to choose for my sandwich (I chose chicken and egg). The sandwich was only 10,000 dong, which is a little less than $0.50. I would be coming back here (if I didn’t get sick) for sure.
I got back to my hostel to eat my banh mi just in time for the “free beer” happy hour. While I enjoyed my real dinner, I met a girl also staying in my hostel named Ha. She was visiting from Toronto, where she had taken a year off from her job to travel the world. She was starting in Vietnam, because it’s her home country and she hadn’t visited since she moved to Canada as a teenager. Until she was 15, she lived in Saigon, so she speaks fluent Vietnamese and had been working her way from Hanoi to Saigon just as I was. She was a very interesting girl and very easy to talk to, but I couldn’t stop worrying about the seafood I’d eaten, so I told her I was going to go take a nap (it was only like 7:30) and just went and laid in bed for the rest of the night.
I got a good 12 hours of sleep, which felt AMAZING, and woke up feeling just fine – no food poisoning! I took my time getting up, showered, and ready for the day and then went down to have breakfast in the hostel’s cafe. I had a great breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, bread, and cucumber along with a “coconut coffee.” The coconut coffee turned out to be coconut ice cream with espresso shots poured over it… Oh my STARS, what a treat! After breakfast, I decided to head to the beach (it was about 10am) to try to get some tan on my legs and arms. Based on how busy the beach had been when I’d visited the evening before, I didn’t think I would be swimming since there’d been SO many other people in the water, so I just threw on a sun dress with some yoga shorts, grabbed my book and a towel sit on and headed to the beach.
When I got there, I was surprised and excited to find that there wasn’t a single other person on the beach. Where there had been hundreds of people, vendors, and excitement and music the evening before, there was now not another soul in sight. I looked around for a sign saying people weren’t allowed on the beach until a later time, but didn’t find anything and decided to just consider it an awesome stroke of luck and walked along the water for awhile before settling on a place to set up shop. With the nice sea breeze, it wasn’t even too terrible sitting in the sun. I lay there reading for awhile, regretting my decision not to bring my swimsuit. After about an hour, I couldn’t resist the ocean anymore and since no one else was around, I decided to just go swimming in my bra and yoga shorts. I’ve loved swimming since I was a kid – first one in the water, last one out – and I’ve always especially loved the ocean. Having not swam in an ocean in probably 10 years, I was in heaven swimming through the waves. I’ve never felt such warm water in the ocean. As usual, I didn’t want to get out of the water and swam around for HOURS until I could actually feel my forehead and nose getting sunburnt. I’d put on sunscreen before I left the hostel, but had forgotten to bring it with me, so I decided to get out and walk back to my hostel before any more of me got burned.
On my way back to the hostel, I stopped by my favorite banh mi lady, and she was just as excited to see me as I was to see her – and she remembered my order (: I got back to my hostel and changed out of my wet clothes before settling in the cafe with my sandwich and laptop to figure out my next plans on my trip. I knew there were things to do and see in Quy Nhon, but I had no interest in any of it – I had decided to come to this town because it seemed relaxed and I wanted a break from sightseeing and excitement and socializing. I literally just wanted to come for a couple of days at the beach and didn’t want to make any friends or talk to anyone (I can’t help it, I just love my alone time and I haven’t been getting enough of it on this trip). I planned to go to Da Lat next, and Da Lat is a place I have been excited to visit since the start of my trip. It’s a little bit south of Quy Nhon, but inland and in the highlands, so the temperature is much cooler than the rest of the places I’d been in the last month and a half (consistently in the mid-70’s).
While I was sitting in the cafe, the owner of the hostel came up and asked to sit with me. He was the nicest, most laid-back person I’ve met so far on my trip, and everything he said was said with an expression of genuine compassion that gave me an automatic sense of comfort with him. We talked about him and his family (he is originally from Da Lat, but moved to Quy Nhon to marry his now wife, and they now have a 2 year old daughter together). He told me he had gone to college for business, and that this hostel was his first business. He said he had gotten really lucky in finding the building, which used to just be a family home, and had done all of the renovations to turn it into a hostel himself. I asked if he had always wanted to own a hostel and he told me that yes, his passion lies in hospitality and he loves meeting people from different cultures to learn from and share his own culture with. I told him about the job I had left to travel and why I’d chosen to do so, and he told me that he also loves dogs, but can’t own them anymore. I asked him why not, and he told me about how dog meat is in such high demand that people will actually go around stealing people’s pet dogs to sell to the meat trade. In one year, he’d had 20 different dogs stolen from his home. I told him I hadn’t seen anywhere serving dog meat yet (thankfully) and he pointed to the restaurant across the street and told me they did.
After talking to him, I started to take notice of how well the hostel was run. The staff were all so attentive, and they took such great care to clean every inch of the hostel throughout the day (something I hadn’t found at any other hostel yet on my trip). The thing I loved the most is how involved he was in the guest service. The thing that makes a great boss is when they value their employees and don’t expect their employees to do anything they wouldn’t do themselves. I noticed he would clean tables or sweep the floors if he noticed something needed to be done before another member of the staff did, and he did it happily. I made sure to tell him what a wonderful job he was doing with his hostel and decided to ask him if he had any recommendations for a hostel in Da Lat, since it’s his home town. His face lit up and he told me his cousin has a hostel in Da Lat that has very good reviews and he would be happy to call his cousin to make sure he saved a bed for me in the best room available. The fact that he didn’t bring this up to me when I’d told him earlier that I was going to Da Lat made all the difference to me – usually, people try to push you to spending money on tours, accommodation, or shopping somewhere owned by a friend or family member. I hate this, because it makes me feel like nothing more than a dollar sign, and I don’t like feeling like I’m being taken advantage of for being a tourist/not knowing better than anyone tells me. Him not even mentioning it until I’d asked made it seem more genuine, and I gladly accepted his offer and he called his cousin and made the arrangements for me.
By now, Ha had returned from her day exploring the islands nearby and sat down with me to have a drink. As much as I just wanted some alone time Quy Nhon (and several other places I’d gone with the same intention), Ha was another person that was interesting and genuine enough that I couldn’t not want to spend time with her. We talked for awhile, and then the French guy, Yoann, I’d met in Hoi An walked in. He got checked in and then joined us for the happy hour. The hostel owner came over to us and asked if we wanted to learn how to play “Vietnamese cards.” A four person game, we sat and learned and played several hands before he announced he had to go home to have dinner with his family, and called one of the girls working there to take his place. We played several hands with her before asking for a recommendation for somewhere to eat. She recommended a street in the main part of the city known for its street food among locals, but not yet a place known to tourists. We took a taxi (only $1 split three ways) and got out at a small street with a lot of activity. We walked along the street taking everything in before finding a place that had little “pancakes” with shrimp and beef. It was definitely the best street food I’d had in Vietnam, and we all shared a pretty big feast. When we got the bill, we were all surprised to find that it had only cost a total of 49,000 dong (a little over $2). We split it three ways, then went to a place we had seen for dessert. We all ordered a different dessert (a Korean style lychee soup with flavored jellies and ice floating in it for Ha, rolled strawberry ice cream for Yoann, and a mango/cream flavored shaved ice for me) and all shared everything. We again only spent only 40,000 dong total and were so happy we somehow managed a meal and dessert for 3 people for less than $5 US.
After we got back to the hostel, we made plans to get up early the next morning to hike a mountain recommended by the hostel staff. The staff recommended taking a motorbike up there, but none of us were comfortable driving one so we decided walking would be fine.
By the time 5am rolled around, I knew I wasn’t going. It was already boiling in our room, so I knew the 5 mile hike would be torture. Ha and Yoann still went, and when they got back they said it was long, hot, and foggy so they couldn’t even see anything from the top. I stand by my decision. I asked the hostel staff if they could help me book a bus to Da Lat for that night, and when they called, the only bus was already full. They explained that it’s high season for Vietnamese tourism and Da Lat is a popular destination due to its cooler climate. I asked if they could call to see if there was one available for the next day, and when they got through, they were informed that one person had canceled on the bus I originally wanted for that night and I could have their spot if I still wanted it. Perfect!
I went to the beach with Ha and Yoann after we played some more Vietnamese cards. I didn’t expect to want to swim, given my sunburn, but once I got there I couldn’t resist. Poor Yoann couldn’t swim because he would be risking infection with the scrapes from his motorbike accident, but Ha and I spent a good hour in the water before I decided to head back to the hostel to pack (my bus would be leaving at 8pm). I said my goodbyes to my two friends, but they would both be heading to Da Lat the next day, so we planned to meet up there as well.