11. A real homestay in Phan Thiet

23.05. – 26.05.2016

After my brief stay in HCMC it was time to visit a new place in Vietnam – which I always find very exciting: Phan Thiet here I come. And it was not just  normal trip. I was invited to visit the family of my friend’s Thuy’s sister-in-law Thuy (2). So my first visit to someone’s family in Vietnam. Now that is even more exciting.

The downside? As there as a disruption of train from HCMC to the north due to a collapsed rail bridge (thanks to an idiot of skipper who decided it is a good idea to hit the bridge with his barge) the train journeys were slightly impacted. So instead I was at the HCMC bus station entering the bus at 1pm with Thuy and Tuan, getting comfortable in my little coffin of sleeping seat on the upper row. I mentioned on my Vietnam Transportation page the safety record of bus journeys in Vietnam is not best. But I trust my friends enough to just follow.

Though I must admit that the bus company Kumho Samco was actually pretty good. The driver didn’t race as other drivers, and the horn was not used every few minutes. I managed even to get some sleep.

After only 3 1/2 hours it was time to get off the bus – though actually not in Phan Thiet. No, we got off somewhere along a busy dual carriageway (at the crossing to Binh Tuan train station). Not knowing what to expect I just followed the other two along the busy road until turning right into a smaller road, where I saw a sign for a guesthouse. As they mentioned that it will be a homestay I somehow think that’s where we heading. Arriving at the turn of the hotel a scooter stopped next to us, and suddenly Tuan disappeared with our bags – and now I was completely confused. Where are we going??? Thuy and I just  followed the small road, passing houses, fields, little shops, and more fields – full of dragon fruit trees.

While I was curious about the place, the local kids were curious what a foreigner was doing here. So an ever-increasing number followed us, until two motorbikes came our way to pick up Thuy and me bringing us to the home of the family.

I used the phrase of the middle of nowhere before – but it really applied here. Hearing we go to Phan Thiet I imagined in the city of Phan Thiet in a kind of homestay. Well, this was not the case. Instead we went from a main carriageway into a smaller road, turned into an even  smaller road that became a dirt road only bikes can go – and at the end of that road were the last three houses, surrounded by dragon fruit fields. These were the houses of Thuy’s 2 family. I was on a farm. It was amazing. It was really staying with locals.

The house itself had a living room with my bed (just a wooden board – yes, the Vietnamese love hard beds), a second room with the beds for the family of Thuy 2 (mother, brother and his wife and two little boys) and a kitchen with a little bathroom. The outside area had a ceiling, so you could sit outside for dinner, or just to relax, And there was even a comfortable hammock outside. And the view of dragon fruits tree was just lovely. Yes – I liked it.

I was quickly introduced to Thuy’s 2 mother, brother, sister-in-law, their two boys, her grandmother and the rest of the family, while sitting outside drinking some tea. Thai and Thuy 2 could only join us the following day, but both Tuan and Thuy 1 knew the family, and it became quickly clear that they were all absolute lovely people (though none could speak any English).

After a wee break two motorbikes were prepared, and the three of us (me once again the passenger) were off heading into Phan Thiet for something to eat. We headed towards the market area as I needed something I forgot to bring with me – a towel. So getting one at a shop we stopped at a food stall on a roundabout for some local crispy noodle dish – which was lovely. After that we stopped at another stall for a desert – some jelly beans, dark beans and some kind of yoghurt. I have no idea what it is called – but it was nice. I somehow managed to entertain the whole stall when I took a picture of the women preparing the desert, and just saying “Em Dep lam”. Everyone nearby started to laugh at the silly foreigner. Well – I am glad to make people laugh with my nearly non-existent Vietnamese.

After all the food we drove a bit around Phan Thiet and I must admit – it looks very nice by night, especially around the river. The bridges are lid up, as is an old tower.

On our way back home it then started to rain. As it was another 20 minutes to the house we decided to stop at a cafe on the road. And it was the right decision – the heaven literally opened up. It rained so much, we had to move away from the open area, as the rain came under the covered section. Still, I was happy – I got my ca fe sua da. When the rain got less we got a few rain coats and we rode back to the house.

We finished the evening sitting outside with the others, and here I learned something important – there are quite a few scorpions in that area. As there is a baby in the house they took that problem very seriously, and whenever a scorpion appeared it was kicked away from the entrance, and a few met a brick as well – which was a once-of-a-lifetime experience.

Then I learned the second bit. During the night all windows and doors are closed, so nothing can come in. A very good idea I hear you say. It just had a big disadvantage. It got very hot inside. And I had to share the only fan in the living room with Tuan, who slept on the wooden bench on the other side of the room. Sleeping on a wooden board didn’t help either to have a good night sleep, so unfortunately I had not a good night sleep.

 

Slightly tired I was getting up for my first ca fe sua da, joining everyone else outside, and met Thuy’s 2 Uncle as well. I mentioned that I slept quite badly, and considered heading to the guesthouse I saw yesterday. This idea was then apparently discussed, and a solution was found. I should move to the house of the uncle where I would have a matrasse to sleep on. It was clearly important for them to make sure I felt comfortable with them – and that there was no need to go away. Yes – they are lovely people.

Soon Tuan, Thuy and I were off for a day trip. First stop – getting breakfast in Phan Thiet. We found the perfect place for soup where one of the bikes could be repaired next door. I would call that very efficient!!!

Riding through Phan Thiet, passing the river which was now full of colourful boats, we headed to the beach front of Phan Thiet. You cannot actually see the beach from the road that goes along the sea, as there is a park between. But at the end of Nguyen Tat Thanh you can see the entrance of the Phan Thiet Ocean Dunes resort complex that will be built here, and on that little road you can find the Ocean Cafe directly at the beach.

It seems to be a popular place for locals, as you can see quite a few families there, taking advantage of the play ground. During the week it is not that busy, but during the weekend it is full (as I found out during my return trip in September). But it is lovely to sit at one of the tables next to the beach. Perfect place to put up your feet, relax, enjoy the view over te beach and have a chat with friends. It cannot get much better. Unfortunately the first of many rain showers that day happened (the sun really never came out again that day) but soon we could finally head to the beach in the north.

We followed the road north-east  along the sea. As soon you are out of Phan Thiet it is a lovely ride, with some great views of the sea. Just after Phan Thiet we got off the road to head to a little fishing village, suddenly arriving at the end of the a little road where the sea started. It was a lovely place, with many boats, fish lying in the sun to be dried. And of course, enough time to do a bit nonsense. I love doing such short stops to see more of the real Vietnam.

However, the real Vietnam disappears when following the road – as you arrive at the touristy areas of the region. First is Ham Tien. On the coastal road you suddenly only see resorts, guesthouses, agencies, restaurants, and more hotels. Some looking nicer than others, but still only tourist places. It was a stark contrast to the fishing village we saw earlier. I am sure it is a nice place to stay there – but for me it was just too touristy. I was actually happy when we came to a section where you were just next to the sea again, and not an area full of tourist building. From one place you actually got a nice view towards Mui Ne in the distance – the next tourist place. During this stop a change was in order as well. Was I riding pillion with Tuan, I got my own bike now to enjoy a ride here as well. Why not.

So off we were again, and soon we arrived in Mui Ne. I actually thought Mui Ne would be the same as Ham Tien, a place full of hotels. But actually, Mui Ne has just a normal town setting, with resorts and guesthouses along the coasts. So normal that we turned into  a little alley  where several groups of children were standing around some buckets.  Stopping next to a group I saw the content of it – bugs. So kids were selling bugs to other kids. Why would you buy bugs I hear you ask. No – not as snack. But to let bugs fight each other. Seems to be a popular thing for boys. Tuan couldn’t help himself and bought a few.

Back on the bike we soon got out of Mui ne and joined the main road in that area. Not that we got far here, as we stopped at one of the many food places on that road near the round about. Time for a cold drink. And time for the bugs. The two opponent bugs got somehow prepared, whizzed around and then let go in a closed area to face each other. After a short “fight” one of the bugs makes a noise and the winner is declared. To be honest – I can actually understand why kids would enjoy the game.

After that hard work it was actually nice to sit back and relax – as it was quite warm. But the heat didn’t prevent me to explore the highlight in the area. The reason the amount of food places here is very simple – the famous sand dunes were on the other side of the road. So constantly women and children will approach you to offer a rug you could use to slide down the sand. I was tempted to do so – but the thought having sand in all your cloth made me not do it. Instead I just walked up the dunes – and it is an impressive site. Looking one direction you can see the blue sea, turning around and you an only see yellow / orange sand. In the distance you could see kids enjoying sliding down the dunes, or just walking in the distance. Closer to me I saw some adults sleeping on the dunes (are they cray – you know how hot it must be????). I just loved taking in the site. The contrast of the sand, the green of the forests in the background or some grass was just beautiful. Heading to the dunes when in this area should be a must-do.

 

Done with the touristy bit we just continued the last few km for our final destination – Hon Rom beach. Along the coast it is the last resort like area near Phan Thiet – and maybe the part least visited by foreign tourists. We stopped at Hon Rom Resort 1, where you pay 150.000 to stay for the day there, able to use their facilities like loungers, toilets and the beach. Despite the very steep hill to go down with a bike it has a nice set up. Above the beach you have an rea full of loungers, a shop, several vendors selling towels swim shorts, as well as quite a few food vendors. It seems it caters mainly for Vietnam tourists, as I have never seen another foreigner there during my visit (or the second visit here in September). And in front of you have a wide long beach. Unfortunately thanks to the strong wind there was a red flag in the water, meaning you were not allowed to swim out. Two security people shouting at the guests the whole time, getting their attention and wave them back when they went out too far. Well – due to the high temperatures it was still refreshing being in the water. Unfortunately, there is quite a bit garbage in the water, especially plastic bags. The usual problem of Vietnam. Careful when swimming later in the year there. I saw quite a few jelly fish in the water in September…

Otherwise it was very relaxing sitting in the loungers, and soon I was treated to some delicious sea food – we got a kg of fresh crab, and 2 kg of mussel for the very high price of 350.000 Dong. Yes, for 3 kg freshly prepared, and very delicious sea food. You cannot beat that.

I fully enjoyed the time here, being able to relax and also having a proper shower. Our departure, however, was slightly delayed when the rain came again – hard. We waited till 6pm until it stopped a bit, and in the dark we headed back to Phan Thiet. Of course it continuously started and stopped to rain all the way, and it was a bit chilly as well on the bike. But after 1 1/2 hours we arrived safely in Phan Thiet to find one of these little food places where you cannot order anything wrong. And this one proved it again. The food with grilled meat and rice was lovely. And the it was entertaining to watch the staff preparing the food in an outdoor area – using their tools it sounded like a well rehearsed band with a lot of drums. I just love these little things while travelling.

On our way back home we stopped one more time at a little place to have a desert – kem flan. It is a custard cake, served with caramel sauce and ice to cool it down. And it is absolute delicious. I cannot say it often enough – but the Vietnamese know how to eat. I could literally eat all day (and sometimes I get the impression I just do that when I am here).

We finally arrived back home to greet Thai and Thuy 2. And what did we do? Sitting outside, drinking beer, eating fruit, and talk. Thuy’s 2 uncle joined us with a bottle with a kind of herb rice wine, and we drunk that too. Poor Thuy 1 had to translate to ensure everyone understood me (I know – it is a big challenge) and I understood them. Hard work!!! But it was such a lovely evening, and we sat there until after midnight (with some interruptions to do some scorpion hunting), before I was shown my bed for the night at the Uncle’s house. It was a little room with a matrasse and a fan. And it was much more comfortable and I managed to sleep not too bad (it was still very very hot!!). Yes – I am one big girl…

 

The next morning started as usual – getting up, sitting at the table outside, having a ca fe sua da (I think anyone who knows me in Vietnam how to motivate me in the morning to get up!!!) and a fresh Banh Mi Op la and enjoying the lovely morning. After breakfast Thai showed me a little bit around the dragon fruit fields, pointing out the lovely flowers that blossom at night, the strange-looking leaves and of course, all the fresh dragon fruits. They actually need a bit more care – so later in the year you can see lights throughout the fields to help them grow. Seeing that in autumn is just beautiful. But working on the fields is hard work, and they are rather cheap – a kg of the fruits will bring you only 15.000 Dong (you can see them sold along the streets and roads in the area).  It actually puts in perspective why Vietnam seems so cheap when visiting it – and shows that life for many people is not easy. Seeing it can be an eye opener, and maybe appreciate the people of this country even more.

Though being surrounded by all the fields had an advantage – you get the freshest dragon fruits you will ever have.

Later that morning a group 6 people left the house to head to Phan Thiet – Tuan, Thuy 1, Thuy 2, Thai, Thuy’s uncle and I. Not sure what was planned we arrived soon at the beach in Phan Thiet. At the park that separates the beach and the main road we were suddenly approached by some vendors, and a minute later a plastic cover was put down to sit one, while beer, crispy rice paper and nuts were served – followed by seafood. So I was sitting near the beach with great people, drinking cold beer and eating nice food while the sun was out – at 11am. At such moments you really have to wonder if life could be any better. It was such a lovely morning, and I enjoyed every single minute. From here you can easily get to the beach, which is actually nice, and I walked all the way to the cafe and back, enjoying the wind, fresh air, the sound of the waves crushing to the beach. And no crowds of loud tourists in sight – just me, the beach and people I really care about. This is what travelling is all about – and not just sitting on a  beach in an expensive resort.

A couple of hours we headed back to home – but to my surprised we stopped nearby to buy more food – fresh crab, mussels. Have we not just eaten??? It seems that was the appetizer, as back home the women started to prepare lunch, while I was sitting on the bench, chatting to the guys, drinking beer and tea, relaxing, enjoying the moment. And then enjoying the delicious food with the whole family. It was just perfect (despite the heat!!!). There was no need to do anything. Being here, chatting, playing with 6-year-old Binh, getting more fresh fruit was just perfect. I didn’t feel like a tourist at that moment, but just like a friend of the family. And I think some of them were happy to have me as a guest – the uncle headed off for work, but an hour later he returned as he managed to switch shifts. That was something else.

Later in the afternoon 5 of us headed briefly back to Phan Thiet to visit a cafe, but instead we only stopped at the shopping mall so I could buy some gifts, and we returned straight back to the home. It was ok for me. There was no need to go somewhere else.

The little gifts of food and toys were appreciated, and little Binh enjoyed the toy cars, and even more the new pens and colouring book, and he spend the whole evening drawing. It was just a little thank you to everyone for the warm welcome I got. Though I think the little Cologne key rings I gave them was even more appreciated.

For dinner we sat outside and chicken feet, fish, noodles and other dishes were served. Though the plan of sitting at the table outside didn’t work – as the rain came. No problem – the roof covered us, but then came the wind. So we all moved from the table to the floor outside the front door. But the wind got stronger and we had to move inside the house. And then suddenly the electricity was down. So now we were sitting on the floor inside, with no lights. So instead a few candles were lid up, torches were used and we continued eating, drinking beer, chatting, drinking herb rice wine and eating more. In the meantime I witnessed how Vietnamese solve problems. It seems only the one house lost the electricity. So an extension cable was picked up in another house, and after hard work the extension was used between our house and the house of the grandmother to give us some electricity. I am not mentioning H&S, as some H&S people might get a heart attack. With all what happened it became maybe an even more memorable night. Once again we all headed to bed after midnight.

 

Thanks for the beer and herb rice wine I might have not felt 100% the next morning (I could not even face a freshly a Banh Mi – which is never a good sign), but there was no time to rest. I had to get all my things together and unfortunately it was time to say goodbye. It was not easy. At the time I was not sure if I would ever return. Little did I know that I returned here 4 month later.Thankfully!

We headed to the main road to catch the bus (no need to go to any station – the driver was told to stop near a cafe). And before 9am we climbed onto the Kumho Samco bus once again, and we were on the way back to HCMC.

 

I have visited quite a few places in Vietnam, and I had some great experience (for example the bike ride in the far north), but this trip to Phan Thiet was something different. Staying with the family of friends was special, and everyone made me feel so welcomed. I didn’t feel like a tourist in a foreign country. I felt like a friend of a family. Being able to experience something like this in a country like Vietnam is just amazing, and I enjoyed every single minute. I never had to think for a second for an answer if I was invited to return in September. This is just a special place for me to visit, and I actually feel privileged to have such a special experience in this wonderful country. It just reminded me why I enjoy returning to this country so often  – it is not the beautiful country, or the delicious food. It is all about the people. So anyone visiting the country should so some effort to get out of the tourist areas trying to experience a bit of the real Vietnam. It is a very rewarding experience, that will make a visit to Vietnam even better.

 

Recommendation:

  • With the rail bridge being repaired it is easy to get to Phan Thiet by train. But Kumho Samco seems to employ rather good drivers and no Michael Schumacher wannabe.
  • Visiting Mui Ne or Ham Tiem I would recommend heading to Phan Thiet. With the little beach, and the market area it actually looks like a nice place, and gives a good contrast to the rather touristy places
  • Outside the touristy areas sea food is so cheap and so good here. I would recommend going where you see lots of locals – this is always the best options to get good quality.

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