Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Quy Nhon - Stepping Off the Beaten Track at Bai Xep

Sunrise at Bai Xep
At this stage of our trip travels Vietnam, solely as a result of our experiences in Hoi An, we were both ready to high tail it over to Cambodia without bothering to extend our visas to visit and miss Saigon, Dalat and the Mekong Delta.

Hoi An had poisoned us but we agreed that we needed to get away and get some perspective before making any rash decisions.

A beachside guesthouse tucked away from the hustle and bustle of city life seemed just the place to do it.  We had stumbled across Haven Guesthouse by chance when we were in Hue.  We stopped by the Hue Backpackers Hostel for a coffee and found their card, looked them up on the internet and booked 5 days.  It is times like this that the word serendipity was invented for.

We arrived at Bai Xep by taxi from Quy Nhon, kindly arranged by the bus driver’s assistant, although by that time we had become so suspicious we were convinced that we had once again been overcharged:  we later discovered the fare charged was the standard fare from Quy Nhon to Bai Xep and the guy was simply trying to help us out.  Hoi An had made us reluctantly wary of everyone we encountered and we wanted to lose that legacy as quickly as possible.

Haven Guesthouse
We were dropped off on the main road above the tiny fishing village of Bai Xep and walked through the narrow streets, barely wide enough for 2 people to pass, following the signs for the guesthouse.  The weather had vastly improved but, as we suspected it would, it had skipped the comfortably warm stage and shot from damp and mild straight to blisteringly hot.  It was sweaty work in our jeans and boots with our heavy rucksacks but it was downhill all the way (which on this occasion was a good thing).

We wandered through the little streets, grateful for the absence of traffic to dodge, past the village well and, just before we stepped foot on the beach, we found the entrance on our left to the aptly named, Haven Guesthouse.

At the gate we were welcomed by Huw and Rosie, a couple from Melbourne who run the place, and Haven their adopted puppy whose legs were a source of hilarity for their shortness.  Once introductions had been made, we were shown to our lovely room on the first floor with a balcony overlooking the beach.   

The sea was metres away, the beach was deserted and there was not a hawker in sight.
Haven the puppy.
Or "Little Legs" as we liked to call him

We started to relax immediately and already Hoi An was beginning to feel like a distant memory.  Anyone wishing to escape the mayhem that seems to be most of the popular destinations in Vietnam would find Quy Nhon and in particular Bai Xep a welcome sanctuary.  

Haven Guesthouse itself is a really lovely place;  with only 3 rooms and a dorm, it is set in an idyllic setting on an almost deserted beach, where you can while away hours watching the beautiful sunrise, the fisherman coming and going, and local families relaxing and enjoying themselves on a sunny afternoon.  When night falls, you are lulled to sleep by the sound and rhythm of the waves crashing onto the shore, a welcome change from the constant hum of motorbikes and scooters.  It really was a perfect place to kick back and relax which doesn’t make for very interesting reading but I will continue nevertheless.

One of the local kids scaling a coconut tree
Bai Xep is 15km south of the city of Quy Nhon;  far enough away for you to feel completely off the beaten track in a village where the local people are  friendly, with a ready smile, and the kids were unbelievably cute, but close enough to civilisation so that you don't  feel completely isolated.

The rooms were cheap (£15 to £20 a night) but with an attention to detail you really don’t expect when you are paying these prices.  Everything was spotlessly clean (and very new), the bathrooms were lovely, the rooms simply furnished with wooden furniture and really comfortable beds (a rarity in Asia), lots of lovely fluffy towels, and beach towels were also provided.

In the open air bar area where we ate our meals, there was a fridge fully stocked with cold beer (an honesty system operated where you helped yourself and wrote it down in your book).  Breakfast was included in the room rate and was hearty and delicious – eggs, fresh warm bread, fresh fruit and yogurt, jam, peanut butter and Vegemite (of course!), easily the best we have had so far.

Our first floor balcony room overlooking the sea
Eating options in the village were limited so an evening meal was provided for 100,000 per person (£3 or $5) and was usually a combination of traditional Vietnamese food cooked by their local staff with something western thrown in (bread and butter pudding was desert one day and cheese (YES CHEESE) another.   There was always more than enough to go around.

Meals were communal affairs with everyone sitting down together and we were a bit dubious about whether we would actually enjoy this aspect of our stay but it turned out to be rather pleasant. There were 4 Germans, 2 French and 2 Americans during the time we stayed, and Rosie, Huw and Huw’s son Sean, together with My their young manager, and we all sat down to eat together.  It was all very relaxed and, dare I say, civilised.

The open air restaurant area where we all
ate our meals together
All credit to Huw and Rosie who really do go out of their way to make your feel welcome.  They are sociable when they are not busy working, will help you with travel arrangements or anything else they can, and really do work hard to make Haven the place it is.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather too as it had apparently rained for 2 weeks solidly prior to our arrival but the day we turned up, the sun was shining, the skies were clear and blue, and it was about 28 degrees.  Luckily for us it continued in this vein for the length of our stay.

Huw and Rosie employed at least 3 local people;  a young girl called My who lived in, and an older husband and wife team who had a large family and lived around the corner from the guesthouse.  My could speak a little English but the husband and wife just communicated with smiles as they chatted away in Vietnamese.  They also arranged for the beach to be kept clean which had resulted in the locals using the beach more and more.  They encouraged guests to visit the village and give the locals business and were anxious that tourism would not have an adverse affect on the villagers' lives.

Bringing the boat in at sunrise
I always woke up before sunrise to watch the sun climb over the horizon from our balcony, and to watch the local fishermen landing on the beach in their little round boats after coming back from a night’s fishing.  Coffee was brewing from about 6.30am so I would grab a couple of cups and bring them back to the room until it was time for breakfast at 8.00am, once again a communal meal. 

We soon fell into a routine of having a nap after breakfast and then going out for a wander either along the beach, into the village, over to the fishing beach, or up on the road to take in the views from there.   Then we would come back to the guesthouse, have a couple of beers and maybe a snack, before having another nap before dinner with everyone at 7.00pm.  We were rarely in bed much later than 9.00pm!  

Three young boys expertly bringing this
tiny round boat into shore
It was so easy to do nothing all day except gaze out to sea, watching the waves, and marvel at the skill with which the fishermen handled their little round boats, chat to the local kids, and just generally relax in the warm sunshine.  The children were adorable.  They would come up to us in little gangs, speaking very little English but chatting away nevertheless, laughing and running around the beach, climbing up the coconut trees and swinging from the palms.  

One morning, one of the older children, Wong, had just come in from fishing with some of the men and came up to me with two handfuls of the most beautiful shells.  He placed them into my hands carefully before giving me a a shy smile and running back to the boat.  Moments like that will always stay with you.

The shells, a gift from Wong
It wasn’t long before our experiences in Hoi An were placed firmly in perspective and we started to plan the rest of our journey through Vietnam.  As the days passed it became clearer that to judge a whole country by a few experiences in one place would be a huge mistake and wholly unjustified.

Huw’s son Sean was over from Australia for a couple of months helping out here and there and he had explored the surrounding area quite a bit.  He had found a series of waterfalls and he would show guests how to reach them.  The river was only a 15 minute walk away out just off the main road but tricky to find on your own.  We summoned up the energy on our last day to venture up to the waterfalls.  The area is completely unspoilt and the only person we saw the whole time we were there was someone minding their cows. 

The waterfalls
Sean led us along trails through to the first section of the river where you then walk through the river itself climbing upstream over rocks to get to waterfall after waterfall.  It was a bit precarious for us so we just went a little way (we both have an ingrained fear of injury that (a) will cut our trip short or (b) particularly in Paul’s case would prevent him from working when the time comes again).  

We waded upstream a little way before we came back to have a swim (or more accurately, a float about) in the shallow cool waters of the river.  Sean wandered off to explore further downstream and left us to spend the rest of the morning sunbathing on a huge rock, waiting for our clothes to dry in the sun, watching the myriad of dragonflies and butterflies.

There was an amazing array of butterflies in particular, of different colours, shapes and sizes we had never seen before.  There were black butterflies the size of sparrows with kingfisher blue dots on their wings, bright orange and red stripy ones, lime green and black stripy ones, and an absolutely enormous moth, at least the size of Paul’s outstretched hand.  If anyone has a clue what it is, we’d be pleased to know because an extensive search of the internet has been unsuccessful.
An enormous moth larger than Paul's
outstretched hand

There was a magical moment when we were sat sunning ourselves and saw a weasel cross the river just a few feet away.  It popped out of the undergrowth by the riverbank, gave us a startled look, and then proceeded to hop across the rocks to the other side.

This was one of the few occasions we had seen wildlife in its natural habitat throughout our whole trip and we spent the next hour willing the weasel to come back, although we knew he wouldn’t as they are very shy creatures but it was amazing nevertheless.  Sadly (and rather annoyingly), he didn’t stop to pose for a photograph!  Pesky wildlife just don’t play the game!

Paul enjoying a shower in a waterfall
As we sat on the rock in the river, listening to the river flow over the waterfalls around us, we really felt for the first time on our trip as if we could have been the only people on the planet.  There was no-one around, we were surrounded by dense jungle-like foliage, we could only hear the sound of the river spilling over the rocks and the odd bird.  And the butterflies fluttering all around us were just entrancing. 

By early afternoon we decided to head back for a bit of lunch.  Our clothes were dry so we got dressed and followed the path back through the trees, up to the main road and wandered down through the village to the guesthouse just in time for a lunchtime beer and an afternoon nap.  Such was how we were spending our days!

The two of us floating in the river
Each evening as we sat eating dinner we watched the scores of geckos on the walls high above us scampering about and gobbling up the mosquitoes, Paul found a couple of stag beetles (one of which sadly met a gruesome end when it was rather unceremoniously trodden on by one of the local children), we spotted sand crabs scuttling across the beach, huge green crickets trying to camouflage themselves among the foliage, and Paul saw a coconut squirrel (similar to a chipmunk).  

So we didn't really do anything very much at all, we just enjoyed our environment and the hospitality of Huw and Rosie. It was a bit like being on holiday!

Quy Nhon Railway Station
We didn’t venture out to explore Quy Nhon while we were staying in Bai Xep but when returned to catch the night train to Saigon, we were a little sorry that we hadn’t.  It was a small city with tree lined streets and colourful houses.  The tiny station was almost comical in comparison to some of the huge remote newly built stations we had encountered in China which are enormous and space age by comparison.  Quy Nhon would have been a lovely place to stop off in its own right, with lovely beaches, a few bars and restaurants, but Bai Xep was a perfect retreat for us at exactly the right time.

Suitably refreshed, and with our Hoi An experiences fading from our memories, we boarded the overnight train to Saigon now eager to continue our travels around Vietnam.

Trying to capture the view from the train window of the
rice paddies
We were delighted to discover we had a compartment to ourselves and settled down to enjoy the journey as the train headed out through the city and out into the countryside.  There is one train a day from Quy Nhon to Saigon (known as the Golden Express) and the railway track actually passes through the streets of Quy Nhon, sometimes alongside the other traffic like a tram.  In England we are so used to passing through industrial estates or past allotments, or the long back gardens of Victorian terraces.  This train ran through the heart of the city and it was a fascinating to watch as we passed in front of shops and homes, giving you an up close and personal view of everyday life.

Paul buying dinner at one of the stations
Soon enough, we left the city and found ourselves travelling through rice paddies, with hills on either side in the distance, as the sun slowly set.  Once we joined the main north-south reunification line we stopped at a small station with lots of stalls so Paul jumped out and was accosted by all of the stall holders at once as he tried to buy some chicken and rice from one of the stalls.

We ate our simple meal, enjoyed a couple of beers bought from the trolleys which were marched up and down the train on a regular basis, then settled down to sleep.  The train was due to arrive in Saigon at about 10.30am the following morning.  We expected we would be late (Vietnamese trains aren't known for their punctuality) but we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived bang on time.

So, we had arrived in Saigon which promised to be every bit as chaotic as Haven was serene.  We felt our time at the beach had been well spent and we were enthusiastically excited about visiting this bustling hot metropolis. The unpleasantness of Hoi An had all but diminished from our memories and we were looking forward to renewing our visas and continuing our journey around Vietnam.


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