A persistent stereotype about Vietnam is that it’s hot year round. The quip, “There’s two seasons in Vietnam: hot and hotter” applies only to the south. I’m delighted when beachwear-clad tourists arrive into Hà Nội airport in January. No doubt they spend their first day panic shopping for knock-off North Face gear that is too small and reeks of plastic.
Video by 10th grade English majors at Vo Nguyen Giap Gifted High School in Dong Hoi.
The Central Coast climate north of Đà Nẵng is extreme. I’ve survived one summer living in the region. Six months of broiling sun and air so humid a walk feels like swimming in bún bò Huế. Now it is my first winter. If it’s not lashing down or drizzling, a grey damp chill pushes in from tormented seas. The tile and concrete buildings, ideal for hot temperatures, are iceboxes.
Weather is on my brain as I gaze out the train window rolling into Đồng Hới. The morning sky is bleak. The sun ain’t coming. Vietnam has plunged into a cold snap with record low temperatures. It is snowing in the north. Thousands of cattle and pigs have frozen to death, crops are ruined. It doesn’t bode well for my research day in Đồng Hới.
The cold weather gear I brought with me when I moved here are worn through. Replacements are impossible given the sizing in this country. Jacket sleeves are a good three inches too short on me. I stopped looking for trousers after I tried on a pair and got stuck. Stuck? Imagine a motorised sausage stuffer shooting a human into a casing. All I have is a Lao scarf, heavy leather cowboy boots, an old fleece pullover and a flimsy raincoat.
Boats at the ready. Photo: Cindy Fan.
I drop off my pack at the guesthouse and “gear up”—in other words, I layer on everything. I wrap the scarf over my head like a babushka, tug on the boots over two pairs of socks, and wear socks on my hands like mittens. If anyone sees me pedalling a rusty bicycle around Đồng Hới, they’ll think I’m crazy. Then I realise that nobody will—the city is empty. Everyone has wisely locked down in their icebox, watching TV. Outside, biting winds strengthen.
Đồng Hới would be pleasant in sunnier times. For tourists it’s mainly a transit point to Phong Nha, where I’m headed tomorrow. I cycle kilometres of beach lined with empty seafood joints. In summer they’d be packed with Vietnamese tourists.
The ride reminds me of the country’s many under-the-radar coastal spots. Rough around the edges, but good for ocean swims, local vibe and cheap, fresh seafood. Chân Mây near Lăng Cô and the coast all the way from Vĩnh Hy through Phan Rang–Tháp Chàm down to Ca Na come to mind.
The perfect feed pho a cold day. Photo: Cindy Fan.
I cross the Nhật Lệ River and am blasted by headwind. Pins and needles fade; my body is now simply numb. A news image from this morning flashes to mind, a cow frozen dead in a ditch. This will be me, I say to myself.
A dog barks. I turn to see one running towards me.
The rule of thumb with dogs in Southeast Asia is to pretend to ignore them and continue on slowly; do not flee. They will follow and bark their head off until you’re out of their territory, then will slink back.
Old and new in Đồng Hới. Photo: Cindy Fan.
I pedal languidly. The snarling beast sprints then lunges, sinking his teeth around my ankle. He can’t bite through the leather but tries with all his might. I shake and kick until he slips off.
“RESEARCH DAY IS OVER,” I yell, firing off expletives as I flee.
The cowboy boots weren’t so ridiculous after all.
Better with sun … and warmth. Photo: Cindy Fan.
In the evening the temperatures flirt with freezing. I wander the ghostly city in search of food. Drawn by glowing lights, I find 7th Heaven—my heaven.
Gusts rattle the windows, but the food warms me up, as does the conversation with a handful of travellers.
Sơn Đoòng comes up. The world’s largest cave is what put the region on the map. The expeditions are costly, yet are booked solid with a long wait list.
“I wish I could see Sơn Đoòng,” I say wistfully.
“Can I stuart? Please, please please? They say it will be warm there.” Photo: Cindy Fan.
“Do you have time for Hang Én Cave?” someone asks. It turns out he works for Oxalis, the only outfitter operating in Sơn Đoòng. “Hang Én is the first night of the Sơn Đoòng trek. It’s incredible and gives you a taste. Let me see if there’s availability,” he says checking on his phone.
On 1/25 9:49 PM Cindy Fan wrote:
Subject: urgent: yes or no
Happened to meet someone who works for Oxalis, the same people who do Son Doong ($3000 cave). He recommended Hang En as more affordable alternative and there's an upcoming spot.
I'm not prepared for trekking but I could wing it with what I have.
let me know tonight if possible. thanks
Sent from my iPhone
On 1/26 7:57 AM Stuart McDonald wrote:
Look it will be warmer underground!
I'm fine with the price - do you think it is worth doing?
On 1/26 8:00 AM Cindy Fan wrote:
He said it’s warm in the cave.
Sent from my iPhone
Tomorrow: Hang En Part 1