After sleepy Hue, we were definitely craving some place a little more lively, especially after bustling Hanoi. To be completely honest, the main reason Hue was even on our itinerary was to break up the long journey between Hanoi and Hoi An, but still it was even less impressive than we would have ever imagined. Anyway, with our stopover cut even shorter than anticipated, taking the first chance to get out of the miserable dilapidated town of Hue, we boarded our first Vietnamese bus with a decent 7-hour or so journey ahead of us. This bus was we’d come to realise, relatively well equipped compared to some others we’d eventually be graced with. Nonetheless we were less than thrilled to be confined to reclining seats with little room for our day packs or legs in my friend’s case given her God-given substantially longer lower limbs than myself (once again there are definitely some perks of being of shorter stature while travelling!!!). And in actual fact we were both glad we had been on one of the first minibus drop offs to the main bus station, because those that arrived just before departure were simply handed a nice petit blue stool for the aisle even after paying the same price to their hostels – not happy Jan… Anyway, the free wifi was great while it lasted- before we used up all the bandwidth- and then I somehow managed to finish the book I’d bought only a few days earlier on my first day in Hanoi- well we definitely were racking up the reading hours with all this extended travel between cities! This left the only option of entertainment being loooking out the window at the countryside, and although not too disinteresting, slightly repetitive upon its 7th hour.
Eventually we pulled into the bus stop. It was a way from the old town which actually proved quite handy for us as we were staying at a hotel that happened to be smack bang in between the beach and old town. I had loaded it’s location on google maps prior to leaving our hotel in Hue – something that I had become very accustomed to doing to avoid major disasters sans SIM card. We hustled a taxi driver and eventually one finally agreed to take us with their meter – it had become common knowledge to us both that you were in fact never getting a “special price” without the meter being used. Although at first I was slightly annoyed at being so far from the old town, once we arrived at our hotel – which we were paying a measly $10 each for a night- it swiftly became clear it was completely worth it. We later found out that we had booked a room in the Southern Hotel Hoi An that had recently been taken over by what is now Salute Hotel & Villa. The hotel had a magnificent pool and dining room (with free breakfast)- it was most definitely a steal, even if we were staying in one of the older recently spruced up rooms, rather than right on the pool for at least quadruple the price.
The concierge was fabulous and made us feel very welcome, bringing us bananas, beers and refresher towels when we rolled exhausted in at 3pm. We got the low down on activities and tours offered through the hotel and they showed us to our rooms, carrying our big backpacks for us – we were already in love with Hoi An!
Later that arvo we decided to venture into town. We opted to head in by foot to get a feel for the town. Of course we got lost and what should have been a 15 min stroll turned into 30 minutes, most of which was in the wrong direction. Evnautally we made it to the edge of the old town- marked now and then with barriers exclaing that cars were not allowed and motos had to abide by strict timetables. By now we were starving and sweating profusely. On the edge of the old town we found a reasonably well decked out restaurant and we were so hungry we didn’t even investigate a menu or prices, we just sat down and ordered a pho and a Vietnamese iced coffee each, waiting eagerly to slurp down the deliciousness. It wasn’t the best pho of the trip but definitely hit the spot, providing us the fuel to be on our way, plus it wasn’t exorbitantly priced at all which we were slightly surprised about given its location and obvious targeting of foreigners. We then headed towards the yellow walls of Hoi An old town and we both fell in love immediately.
Shop after shop of beautifully tailored clothes; some selling obviously ridiculous dress ups, some much more practical specialising in tailored business shirts or uniforms. Plus the beautiful yellow/weathered walls of the town were just magical. We snaked through the main streets, heading towards the waterfront, it was like nothing else we’d seen in Vietnam.
As the sun began to set over the river, we parked ourselves at Q Bar and ordered some happy hour cocktails. Although above our usual price range (of about $2), they were by far the best cocktails we’d had and well worth the investment. We walked along the river in hunt for some dinner, there were 10s of stalls barbecuing meats and veggies and serving spring rolls and other appetisers. After a lap we settled for a stall with some grilled skewers and other deliciousness, with the sun set and the only light being emitted from lanterns reflecting in the still river waters, the atmosphere was magical. After dinner, we crossed the river and headed to the night market stalls lining the streets.
The market was much more manageable than others, smaller in size and vendors had put more effort into how they displayed their stock – perhaps because it was more geared towards the throngs of tourists, nonetheless it was a very pleasant experience and we were most definitely going to come back in the coming nights. We headed back to our hotel in a taxi for what I can remember was an extremely low price, not that we were complaining. The next day we were off for a tour of the coconut village and a cooking class which we had organised through the hotel.
We had a driver pick us up at 8:30am and take us towards old town. We were getting a fast boat to coconut village and then were heading onwards to the cooking class. The boat trip was interesting, we saw groups of fishermen, most with huge nets, and was nice to get more rural, away from the tourist hustle and bustle of old town, as beautiful as it is.
We arrived at coconut village, where in fact we later learnt that no coconuts are actually grown but similar ferns have overgrown and taken over the waters. We hopped into a bamboo boat with our guide and he guided through the huge groves. We caught/found mussels (that we would later cook and eat!) and partook in some very unsuccessful fishing.
Eventually we had had enough and were getting peckish (and my bladder/intestines could no longer hold on a second longer) so we hurried to shore and rode some bicycles to the little hut/house where our cooking lesson would take place. Thank god for a western toilet is all I could say, because last night’s delicious dinner was perhaps not 100% agreeing with me.
We took our spots at the cooking station and were given the lunch menu – green papaya salad, net spring rolls, fish, mussels, vietnamese savoury pancakes and a few other additions I can’t quite remember. Boy were all the dishes pretty straightforward and boy was the feast absolutely delicious. Of course our spring rolls were not as aesthetically pleasing as our guide’s but they were equally delicious bites of deep-fried yumminess. We were completely packed to the brim by the end of it, amateur-ly unaware that there were a few extra dishes brought to us on top of the ones we had cooked so we hadn’t quite left enough room in our ever-expanding stomachs. Nonetheless, we had roomful the finale of slightly friend banana in a caramel sauce. We were eventually whisked away by our driver and eventually returned to our hotel, extremely content with half a day’s work/play. After a relax by the pool we did return to town that afternoon, this time not getting lost, learning from our mistakes of the day before. We bought a UNSECO ticket (~$6) and visited a couple of the main sites in town with the ticket – over the course of your stay you can take your pick of up to 5 of many old houses, assembly halls, museums and the Japanese bridge, just keep your ticket on you or you will have to buy a second one (learnt from this one..) and with some culture ticket off the list for the day, we then opted for some self-indulging.
A few cocktails at Q Bar and we were off to get some clothes tailored. Well, I think most people would be able to tell us that tipsy shopping was probably not the best idea. After a great deal of deliberation with which shop to go for, and which dress design would be best, my friend had sealed the deal on a black pencil skirt and nice white dress that would be ready for fittings in a day and a half. Well we also ventured to the leather shop which happened to be next door and walked away with two wallets and a belt and a receipt for a custom-made handbag that would be ready the next day. An afternoon well spent… And for dinner, we ended up scouring the streets for Madame Khanh the “Banh Mi Queen” determined to get our hands on the famous concoctions. DELICIOUS, enough said.
The next day we were off to see My Son-a collection of ancient temples (4th-14th Century AD), similar to Angkor Wat however far less impressive and far less well preserved. We were informed that the ruins were only discovered at the turn of the 20th Century by a Frenchman, to later be completely bombed to the ground in some cases during the Vietnamese War by the US armies in an effort to kill the Viet Cong North Vietnamese armies that were hiding out amongst the ruins. Also of note was the role the french had in removing anything of value from the temples – heads of statues etc when they came across them as tokens of their successes.
Once we were back we set up ourselves by the pool for a relax with some lunch (and a mojito of course!) and relaxed for the afternoon. It was time to make the most of the beautiful peaceful pool after a couple of days of jam-packed adventures. Eventually we made it out into town for dinner – plus we had to collect a few of our items at the tailors and somehow ended up ordering a few more bits and bobs mostly from a specialist silk tailor before we called it a night.
The next day was sadly our last day in Hoi An. We decided to take the complementary hotel bikes out for a spin. We were both keen to do some cycling of the area beyond the old town, so decided to do a self-guided tour that we kind of made up as we went with the help of a few online sources. It took us via a nice temple, some beautiful rice paddies and we ended up at the beach (pre-planned with bathers of course!). It was a divine day, made all the more amazing when we stumbled upon two of the Laos gang strolling down the beach in front where we’d parked ourselves in the sun! It was like magic that we’d stumbled upon each other about a week after leaving each other in Luang Prabang!
Once back in town we opted for more pampering- massages and mani-pedis prior to checking in on our orders. We had to park our bikes dodgily on the edge of the old town, by a church attached to a power pole, and skipped away hoping they would still be there later that night. We walked along the riverside and got a cocktail at a place cheaper but far inferior to our trusty favourite, but that overlooked the river as the sun began to set.
After dinner we took a walk along the Japanese Bridge and through the small market stalls on the other side of the bridge, eventually making our way back to our bikes. Well, little did we know, we had parked them in someone’s usual vendor spot, where they set up their evening stall and we were very much in the way. We played the naive tourist, promptly removed our bikes and rode away into the darkness towards our hotel calling it a night.
We fell in love with Hoi An on Day 1. Sadly though the journey had to go on, we had a flight from Da Nang to Nha Trang booked for the next morning and neither of us had any desire to give the buses an extra go than was required. We booked a driver, said goodbye to the beautiful concierge – who gave us both complementary farewell beer -and packed up our bags, ready for an early trip out.