Just booking the car is an adventure.
How long does it take to drive from Saigon to Nha Trang? Everyone we speak to has a different answer. “The roads are good, you can drive fast. 4hrs.” “The roads are only good part way. 8hrs”….
The little lady we finally book with seems to know her stuff. “Your driver pick you up at the hotel at 8AM. He will drive you to Nha Trang.”
“We want to stop for lunch half way, maybe at Phan Thiet.”
“You should stop in Mui Ne, I can recommend a good place for you. I write down for your driver.”
“Vietnamese food? We do not want western food.”
She laughs, “Yes, yes Vietnamese food.”
“Our driver, he will speak English?” We were hoping to have someone point things out to us along the way.
“No good English, little bit of English. If good English, better job than driver.”
The driver shows up about 15 minutes late and walks into the hotel looking like a retired hippie with long hair, his weather beaten face makes him look like he has American Indian blood in him. But he is very Vietnamese.
Getting out of Saigon is surprisingly quick, but the suburbs feel like one continuous sprawled out village of shantytown. They are building a decent road but you cant drive more than 50 km/hr because of all the motorbikes, bicycles and human beings everywhere. All of the vehicles honk their horns, like voices singing out to inform everyone that they exist. I start to get used to the voice of our car as we make our way through the masses.
We haven’t said anything to driver so far except for the initial hellos, he’s been listening to the radio. But I have to pee.
“Madame needs to use the toilet.”
He looks at The Duc in the rear view mirror, questioning.
“Ah!” and he points up ahead.
At this point, we realize that conversation will be inexistent with him.
We content ourselves with looking out the window and the view we have is as engaging as it is ever changing. “Look at how many people are on that motorbike.” “Have you noticed all of the Jesus statues in this town? And Churches, look!” “What do you think that truck is carrying?” “Look at that bus, it looks like it is going to collapse at any moment.” “I’ve never seen ripe rice before, look they are harvesting with buffalo.”
We hardly see time go by and before we know it we are approaching Phan Thiet. This is the point where we must peal off onto another road to reach Mui Ne for lunch. We’ve been driving for four and a half hours. I look at the map again. Yep, we’re only half way to Nha Trang.
But the driver pulls into a truck stop. There are about 3 busses pulled up to the front door of this place-practically a shack.
“Mui Ne?” we question him pointing at the paper the travel agent lady gave us.
He looks at the paper as though he cannot read and looks at us, confused.
The Duc is frustrated, he was looking forward to lunch at Mui Ne, but I suggest that this truck stop experience may be more authentic.
Greeted by heat and dust outside the car, we follow him into the bustling shack. The place is hopping. There must be about two hundred people eating here, crouched on small stools, shoveling food into their mouths. People stare at us as though they have never seen a foreigner before. And maybe they haven’t; there aren’t any foreigners anywhere to be seen around here. Maybe it is the camera around my neck or my aspirin-white skin.
The driver sits down and motions for us to do the same. A young boy appears at our side with tattered plastic sheets of badly translated English menu. We point at what we want. The Duc is happy because he found something unusual: snake head in clay pot. He’s been trying to order snake wherever we see it but no one wants to serve it to him and tell him ‘westerners not like this’. But these people say nothing at his choice.
Our food arrives almost instantly.
The driver gets the ‘plat du jour’, a tiny portion of pork ribs mounted on a huge plate of rice washed down with a coke.
For me, noodles with cuttlefish. Topped with a beautiful selection of herbs and leaves. I love that. It adds freshness and aromatics, not to mention color. The cuttlefish is perfectly cooked, sort of sautéed with garlic and a little bit of shrimp. The noodles look like they came out of a bag ready made, but the taste is great-very peppery, but maybe it’s the juice of the sautéed cuttlefish that brings in the pepper.
Snakehead in clay pot, served with a big plate of rice, although very good, is less exotic tasting than we expected. It tastes a little lot like beef stew but with a more chilies and more spice. Its perhaps a little less fatty that beef stew, but not dry at all.
By the time we finish, the place has calmed down. The busses have loaded up and gone leaving the place looking like it has been hit by a bomb. There are chopstick, toothpicks, paper and food littering the ground and big glass mugs all over the tables leaving wet spots from the melting ice.