A flavour of old Vietnam

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
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Trip End Jun 01, 2012


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Where I stayed
Hoa My hotel

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

To get to Hoi An from Nha Trang is roughly a 12 hour drive on the sleeper bus. This time we actually did have one of the big sleeper buses, we were just waiting to see whether once again we would be put on a minibus, but no it was an actual big bus with sleeper beds and everything. Finally after 2 months of traveling around Asia we actually got a sleeper bus as promised. Annoyingly my seat was broken so would only stay in a lying down position but I accepted that as it's better than being stuck sat up all night. 

Despite the bus looking quite nice, once we set off and moved it sounded pretty dodgy, no matter how fast we were going the bus sounded like it was in 1st gear and struggling along. Then just an hour into the journey we pulled over on a dark street seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Nobody told us anything but then we could hear what sounded like a drill being used on the left hand side... someone was removing the wheels. I still don't know what the problem was, I can only assume it was a puncture but both the wheels were changed by a very old looking man. This dirty, dark, shack didn't exactly have a selection of new tyres available, they didn't even have a toilet. They just selected one that looked roughly the same size off a big heap that they had around the back and bashed it with a mallet until it would fit onto the wheel. After about an hour we were on our way again, and feeling nervous.
  
To be fair, the rest of the journey wasn't too bad and we managed to sleep most of the way. When we arrived into Hoi An it had been about 13 hours since we left Nha Trang and we were herded off to our hotel called Hoa My, and were very pleasantly surprised. The hotel was ornately decorated with a Chinese style, had a swimming pool and our room was beautiful. For $12 (USD) a night we had a big double room with a balcony, cable TV, hot water (with a shower that had a door!), a fridge and art work on the wall. I thought we'd be slumming it in Vietnam, but we've had much much nicer accommodation than we had in Thailand and for less money. 

Hoi An is known as the place in Vietnam to get tailored clothes and it feels like everyone here is a salesman. The moment we left our hotel a women on a bicycle came up to us with the classic opener "where you from?" and she was wanting us to go to her friends tailor shop. We tried to ignore her but she was on a bike so we couldn't exactly run away, and she was so persistent too. "Hello where you from? Hello where you from? Hello, hello?" We had been told that it's best just to ignore them but it just felt so rude so we answered and then spent 5 minutes telling her we didn't want clothes. She was just the first of many, our hotel recommended somewhere, our tour guide wanted us to go to his friends place and everyone on the street is trying to drag you into a store.... everyone! Eventually you realise that being polite just means that it will take you three times as long to get to where you're going, and you have to just ignore people as much as possible. We made our way past the long long line of stores trying to look disinterested and eventually made it to the old town area of Hoi An. 

I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that it's the most beautiful town we've been to in South East Asia. It's perhaps a bad example but I thought it was like the 'Venice of Vietnam' (and that's not to do with the recent flooding, although a few days ago people did have to get boats to and from their hotels). The buildings are incredible, they all have lanterns lit up hanging outside and aged walls with beautiful paintings and so much character... simply incredible. When you're walking around you can imagine that it looked exactly the same decades ago, except with less tourists and less tacky souvenirs for sale. Lining the streets are small wooden bird cages so you have the constant sound of birds chirping as you walk around. And actually, it seems to be a bit of a theme of central Vietnam because even the stops on the night bus have these bird cages.
 
We started our walking tour of the old town by crossing over the old Japanese bridge which is a bit of a Vietnamese icon. It's very ornate, taking influence from China, Japan and Vietnam and guarded by a monkey God on one side and a dog God on the other. We then wandered around the shops being tempted to buy the beautiful souvenirs and artwork before we visited an ancient house. The architecture is amazing, and even more amazing is that just a few days before, the whole place was under 1.5m of water. Looking at it, you would never have known that the place had been flooded at all. We asked the owners of the ancient house what it was like and they showed us where the water went up to and explained that they had to move everything upstairs during the floods. this happens 4 or 5 times every year so I don't know how these houses have survived that over so many years. You'd have thought they would design it as a town on stilts.

Near the Japanese bridge they play traditional music all day and at night there are often all sorts of performances in the town. We went to a traditional Vietnamese show where they performed traditional music and dance, and women sell candle lanterns to float down the river adding to the fantastic atmosphere. When we got down to the river in the evening, the cutest little Vietnamese boy came toddling over to us to sell us a little candle lantern. He was so small and looked to have only just learned how to walk. He obviously didn't know why he was supposed to come over to us but we could see his mother/grandmother behind him urging him to come up to us. I'm convinced that if we had bought it he would have cried because we'd be taking away HIS lantern. They really do start them young!
 
I think one of the best things about our time in Hoi An was just sitting in a small restaurant overlooking the river, eating amazing food and soaking up the atmosphere whilst paying next to nothing. You can get a fresh beer for 4000 dong - which is 20 cents (US) and really nice beer too. For dinner we had an incredible set menu meal which included 3 taster starters of local food, a main course with rice and a dessert for 2.50 each from a restaurant that gives cooking lessons in the day. It was awesome and we watched people floating their lanterns down the river, and chatted to the restaurant owner, Mr Phong all about the war. Amazingly, he fought for South Vietnam and his uncle fought for the north even though they lived in the same town. What's horrible is that the war memorials only list people who fought for the north and people who fought for the south had to be "re-educated" which was not a nice thing!
 
Whilst in Hoi An, we also went on a day trip to visit an ancient Cham temple called My Son. Apparently there is evidence to suggest that there were temples in that area from around 400AD but they're just ruins now as several of them were severely damaged by bombing during the war. After taking some photos in ridiculous humidity we caught a boat back to Hoi An which was a different experience of Hoi An altogether. Our boat was ancient and had some wooden chairs to sit on which were all falling apart. They served us a bland lunch of rice and vegetables which we had to balance on the pop-up tables from the seat in front, and you'd have to hold your plate still or it would just slide off. Even the ramp to get onto the boat didn't work properly so on the way back we had to climb onto the boat through a window. It was rubbish, but miraculously it did get us back to Hoi An without sinking which was great!
 
So, our couple of days in Hoi An have been fantastic and you could easily spend much more time here. We are now on our way to Hue (seems to be pronounced H-way) on a sleeper bus. 

To get to the bus was quite interesting though. Our hotel told us that they would show us where to go to catch the sleeper bus, but it was raining so they got their porter guy to take us on his motorbike. He held Katy's big bag in front of him and told Katy to sit behind him. I sat down in the hotel waiting for him to take Katy and then come back for me... but no, he wanted to just do one trip. So on one tiny bike you had Katy's big bag, then him, then Katy with her hand luggage, then me on the back with my big bag on my back, a backpack in one arm and a big bottle of water in the other and off we went. Let's just say the corners were scary and we think the locals got a good laugh at our expense.
 
We have absolutely loved Hoi An, what a beautiful and brilliant place! The real ancient Vietnam!
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