02.07.2014 - 09.07.2014
This paragraph from Lonely Planet's website summarizes what we knew about Hoi An before we arrived:
"Graceful historic Hoi An is Vietnam’s most atmospheric and delightful town. Once a major port, it boasts the grand architecture and beguiling riverside setting that befits its heritage, but the 21st-century curses of traffic and pollution are almost entirely absent. Whether you’ve as little as a day or as long as a month in the town, it’ll be time well spent."
Hoi An is also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and is famous for its affordable tailored clothing so naturally, we were looking forward to spending a few days there.
The transfer from Phong Nha to Hoi An included two stops. The first was cultural in nature as it allowed us to visit the Vinh Moc tunnels in the province of Quang Tri. Son Trung and Son Ha villages in Vinh Moc county were strategically located on the border of North Vietnam and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War (also known as the Demilitarized Zone or DMZ) and the tunnels were built to shelter people from the intense bombing by the American forces who believed the villagers were supplying food and weapons to the North Vietnamese. The idea was to force the villagers to leave the area but as is typical in Vietnam there was nowhere else to go. The villagers initially dug the tunnels to move their village 10m underground but the American forces designed bombs that could reach that far. Eventually and against all odds, the villagers moved the village to a depth of 30m! This took them 6 years to build, from 1966 until 1972 and the complex grew to include wells, kitchens, rooms for each family and spaces for healthcare. Around 60 families lived in the tunnels and as many as 17 children were born inside the tunnels. Absolutely incredible! The best part is that no villagers lost their lives.
Vinh Moc beach:
One of the entrances to the tunnel system made larger for us tourists:
The second stop on our journey to Hoi An was the ancient city of Hue about 140km north of Hoi An where the minivan dropped us off and we got on a larger bus for the rest of the way. We considered staying in Hue for a couple of days because it was the national capital until 1945 and boasts many historical monuments but we decided to use those days to extend our time in Hoi An instead. Everyone we spoke to raved about this peaceful city and we felt certain it wouldn't disappoint.
We arrived at around 5pm and walked to An Hoi Island on the Thu Bon river where we were told the accommodation would be reasonably priced. An Hoi is just south of the old city and is connected to the mainland by a small bridge. Knowing we had arrived in what was still considered the low season, we decided to test our bargaining skills with some of the fancier hotels in An Hoi, and by that I mean a bit nicer than the budget rooms we had now become accustomed to - not always clean, not always a blanket, not always soap or toilet paper, cupboard-sized bathroom where everything gets wet because you shower in the middle of the room with not shower curtains or raised edges to contain the water. We managed to get some discounts by employing the tested and proved "walking away" technique but not enough to justify a blow to the budget so we settled for the An Hoi, the best value for money on that riverside strip.
The old city seen from An Hoi:
An Hoi night market:
The Drurys talked about Hoi An's amazing street food in their blog and we were keen to start exploring. Feeling refreshed after a cold shower, we headed straight for the barbecue pork spring roll lady the Drury's had raved about.
She showed us how to roll our own and although ours didn't look quite as pretty as hers, the wonderful flavors were all there:
A nice mango shake from the vendor across the street to go with our meal and we were hooked!
To make sure we left plenty of time for any alterations, we decided to go in search of a tailor. Not an easy task in a city where every other shop is either a tailor or leather shoe maker.
Not wanting to make a hasty decision, we went back to the hotel to do some further research. The next day, we opted for Lana Tailor which is one of two tailor shops recommended by the free Live Hoi An guide we had picked up in Phong Nha.
We didn't spend much time preparing for our tailored clothes experience, actually, we didn't spend ANY time preparing for it, so we arrived at Lana with only a vague idea of what we would order and how much we would be willing to spend...sort of. After flicking through a few pages of a fashion magazine they provided, I showed them a design I liked for a work dress, they nodded in agreement and helped me choose the material. It was easier than I thought! I ordered two more designs and I was done. Greg's selection was even easier: two classic suits, a sports jacket and a few work shirts. Boom. All that was left was bargaining the final price tag and the measurements. They put up a good fight but we managed to get the discount we asked for. As with most things in Vietnam, we probably could have bargained harder but it's an exhausting process and we felt we were paying a fair price.
Our ladies went to work and measured every inch of our bodies - I'm not sure if it's because they were half our size or the fact that they had discovered those Michelin tire rolls we had been trying so hard to hide, but our confidence was shot. We looked at each other with puppy eyes knowing very well what the other was thinking. I naturally told Greg that he would look great in the suit and I loved him no matter what. Yes yes, you may have some cheese with that Greg on the other hand opted for so called humor: "don't worry love, I'll just trade you in for a younger model". And there you have it, why men have no clue and proof I'm definitely the nice one in this relationship!
Quick lunch break at the Central Market where we tried Hoi An's famous Cao Lau:
We then found Shoe Shop No. 9, also recommended by the "Live Hoi An" guide, where we had some leather shoes and a bag made. We spoke to some customers who had come to pick up their orders and their glowing review helped to seal our decision. After another satisfying round of negotiations that included techniques such as: "ooooooooooh, expensive! I can buy for the same price in my country!" (which was not a complete lie, by the way, it just omitted the fact it probably wouldn't be leather) and "no, sorry, we can't afford it, maybe next time", we left the shop in search of cheap street food because our budget had just been thrown out the window. As we ate the delicious quail egg Banh Canh the Drury's had recommended from a street vendor near the Central Market, we planned our next few days in the area.
Vietnam Telecom - slightly alarming!
Delicious quail egg Banh Canh, one of my favorite!
Mandatory selfie with An Hoi in the background:
We had appointments for various fittings throughout the following day so we decided to check out the main sights and wonder the charming streets of Hoi An.
"aaaaaaahhhhhh - feels like I'm on the operating table":
We were very impressed with the preliminary results and the ladies at Lana were very helpful, never complaining about the various alterations we asked them to make because, as it turns out, we are apparently asymmetrical. Great, not only were we becoming rounder but we were also crooked.
The shoes were not the same quality but nice enough. We asked them to fix a few glitches and wondered the city further in search of more delicious street food. We couldn't get enough.
We ventured outside the city on day 4 and booked a cycling tour of Tra Que Herb Village, a small farming community about 5km north east of Hoi An. It’s an easy bicycle ride and a quite scenic one which involves pedaling past rice fields, over bridges, and lazy water buffaloes lounging in the mud. The tour gave us the opportunity to become farmers for half a day. Our lovely guide showed us around the village and arranged for a farmer to teach us some of his skills such as how to prepare the soil, water the crops, fertilize the land with seaweed from the nearby lake and plant the herbs in neatly arranged rows.
Tra Que Water Wheel:
Ginger and basil seed drink - it was actually delicious despite what Greg's face might suggest. Our guide had just jokingly said the seeds were frog eggs and Greg fell for it:
Greg at work on the farm:
Issy trying to keep up:
Please excuse him...
We only worked for half an hour, at most, but felt we had labored under the scorching sun for hours. We are full of admiration for the villagers who do this back-braking work from dawn to dusk.
Our multi-talented guide then proceeded to make lunch for us and allowed me to help while Greg "supervised" (read: napped).
The beaches of Cam An were only 2 or 3 km further north so we took advantage of the full day bicycle rental to check them out.
Vietnamese woven bamboo basket boat:
Back in the old city:
Having heard great things about the cooking courses in Hoi An and being huge fans of the cuisine, we booked a course with Green Bamboo on our final day. Van was great and we quickly understood why she was no. 1 on Trip Advisor.
Van took us to the market where we bought the ingredients for our dishes:
11 of us and we each made a different dish - we have never felt so stuffed. But it was all delicious!
The afternoon was spent picking up our tailored clothes and shoes and organizing the shipping of said garments. The postal service in Hoi An has to be one of the best in world because they make house calls! The hotel manager simply made a call and 20 minutes later, a post office agent was in the lobby stuffing our precious new wardrobe into a cardboard box. No less than 12kgs! We watched anxiously as she loaded our box onto her motorcycle, covered it with her plastic poncho, and rode off into the rainy night. We'll see in about two months when it reaches Miami if it truly deserves the accolade.
Some purist say that flying is cheating and you can't really call yourself a true backpacker if you get on an airplane when other cheaper and "tougher" options are available. Never mind them. The overnight sleeper train was fully booked and the bus option was simply too horrid to imagine so we bought two seats on the early morning flight to Ho Chi Minh on Vietnam Airlines. The price was reasonable and it allowed us to save some precious time.
I heard someone describe Ho Chi Minh city as Vietnam at its most dizzying and I couldn't agree more! Saigon, as it is known by most, is the largest city in Vietnam with a population of 9 million and almost as many motorcycles. It's known for its food, colonial architecture, war museums and markets. After the peacefulness of Hoi An, we were ready for chaos!
We arrived early and our room wasn't ready so we left our bags at the hotel and set-off on a colonial tour of the city.
Vietnamese ninja ladies - so called because they cover themselves from head to toe (yes, they're wearing socks) to avoid getting a tan despite the heat and humidity:
He climbed up the tree the old school way and his only safety equipment, a rope tied around his waist...hectic!
We stopped to inquire about a tour of the Cu Chi tunnels in the Cu Chi district, about 40km north west of Saigon. Everyone we spoke to said it was a worthwhile tour so we booked a half-day tour later that afternoon. We had about an hour and half for lunch and started looking for a local restaurant in the area when we noticed posters advertising the AO Show at the Opera House. The thought of attending a traditional Vietnamese show at Saigon's Opera House was too enticing to resist so we bought tickets for the following night.
The bus ride to Cu Chi was two hours long but time passed quickly. Our guide entertained us with anecdotes about the city and we were soon driving past the many rubber tree plantations near the tunnels. I had heard these underground tunnels were instrumental in the war against the Americans but what I didn't know is that they were actually built in the late 1940s as guerrilla hiding areas in the fight against the French. They were then increased into a vast network in the 1960s which the Americans never got close to destroying despite carpet bombing and the use of the agent orange.
The guided tour allowed us to explore the tunnels firsthand and we were shocked to see how small they were. The Vinh Moc tunnels we had visited a few days earlier were much larger in comparison - I could stand up in most parts and Greg only had to bend slightly.
The Cu Chi tunnels were mostly used for fighting and weapon storage but the kitchens, living and sleeping areas were also used when necessary. Despite (or because of) his claustrophobia, Greg decided to tackle the smallest tunnel on his own but soon came face to face with a bat and had to abort his mission. That's his story anyway.
Caught in traffic on the way back to Saigon - I wasn't kidding about the motorcycles!
Activities in the park - kung fu, foot badminton and ballroom dancing - why not??
You know it - more street food. Vietnam's version of beef fondue cooked on a hot roof tile:
Day 2 began with some shopping at a market near our hotel. Rows upon rows of stalls selling anything from underwear to shoes, and everything in between.
Surprisingly, the damage was very minimal - one pair of shoes and a t-shirt for me, nothing for Greg. We must have been overwhelmed, it's the only explanation.
More walking led me to a spa for a much needed pedicure for the scandalous price of $4.5 while Greg explored the area further. I was worried he would come back the owner of a Vespa but I banished the thought and focused on the blog.
Not one but two ladies working on my feet - were they that bad??? I'm offended.
Vietnamese Pho - a classic with a twist: blood!
It was almost time for the highly anticipated AO Show.
The show was highly entertaining! The artists used dance, martial arts, music and bamboo in a series of amusing sketches to depict Vietnam's transition to urbanization. Some of it was lost to us because we didn't understand the lyrics but the visuals were enough for us to get the big picture.
Saigon by night:
We went to the War Remnants museum on our last day and learned more about the brutality of the Vietnam War. Old military vehicles are in display in the front yard while, inside, the photographic exhibits tell the story. My heart broke into a millions pieces all over again. I just don't understand...
The vivid images still etched in my brain, I followed Greg to the restored Vespa street where he instantly cheered up and I found amusement at the thought of Bella riding in the Vespa side-car on the way to doggie daycare. What a different world we come from!
Random coconut street vendor challenged Greg to carry his load for a few meters - harder than it looks!
As you do:
We checked out the Chinese wholesale market where all the other merchants get their supplies from,
rode our first Xe Om or motorcycle taxi which was an exhilarating experience,
and Greg went to the Russian market in search of more bargains while I blogged in a nearby cafe. The view from the cafe - is that tangled mess for real???
We are now in Singapore and today happens to be the country's independence day so we were treated to some fireworks earlier this evening. They've got nothing on Cayman's Pirates Week! The iconic temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia coming next.
Greg and Issy