Hoi An


11 June 2012

I am writing this from the bottom bunk on board the day train from Hoi An to Nha Trang.  We have been aboard for roughly five and a half hours, with another four or more to go.  While this trip is markedly better than the overnight trip (mainly due to lack of screaming children and the discovery of a western toilet onboard) gone is the romantic notion of train travel with the locals.  They have a much higher threshold for certain unsavoury things than I do.  


We’ve been in Hoi An for the last three nights.  It has been a well-timed respite from the level of energy of the trip so far. 

We travelled to Hoi An by bus from Hue.  The trip was a couple of hours long, and quite pleasant.  For tourist purposes the bus took the route over the hills rather than through the tunnel under the mountain.  The trip up the hill was amusing, as the air conditioning would cut out each time the vehicle needed more grunt to get up the hill.  The route was also liberally sprinkled with a variety of interesting road signs…


I assume this was 'don't pass'.
Don't fly your saucer into the fence?
This one worries me...

In Hoi An we had our first and only free day in the trip, plus a couple of afternoons to explore ourselves. 

The first stop for everyone was one of the many tailor shops that Hoi An is famous for.  No exception, I was measured for a suit, some shirts and a copy of a dress I was given, that doesn’t quite fit.  They can make you a suit, or anything else, in 24 hours, but they had more time for mine as we were in town for another two days.

Hoi An was hotter than Hue, I think.  Nudging 39c most days.  It was reassuring to see the locals also sweating in the heat, though they didn’t look quite so uncomfortable.  I feel sorry for the tailor in the shops having to measure and fit clothes on hot sticky bodies.  Blurgh!  It was difficult to get my clothes dry in time to wear the again - when you’re going through two or three sets a day!

Hoi An was once a major port city, but it’s importance declined as the ships moved elsewhere.  Luckily a large number of the old buildings have remained intact, and parts of the old town remain as they were hundreds of years ago.  The city is now working to preserve this heritage, and is a very popular tourist destination. 

One of the streets in the old part of town.

The hotel was very nice.  It wasn’t big, so we mostly had the place to ourselves.  The best part was the pool out the back in a beautiful garden.  It was always warm (sometimes a little too warm!) and was the place to go after a day in town.  One night we were in the pool just after sunset, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a small bird diving into the water.  The silhouette didn’t quite look right, and after a closer look I could see it was actually a bat, dipping in to the water to skim midges off the surface.  It wasn’t at all interested in us.  

I was not so pleased to see the other wildlife at the hotel.  One cockroach met it’s doom at the end of the remote control in my room, while the second one died due to a bad case of violent umbrella.

On the first afternoon in Hoi An the group went walking into town.  My foot still being sub par, the tour leader at asked one of his friends at a shop to give me a lift into town – on his motorbike!  I was less than enthused about this, as it basically consisted of me holding of for dear life behind the driver.  But we made it safely to the café for lunch.  

On the recommendation of our guide I ordered My Quan, a rice-noodle dish, with chicken and herbs and mung beans traditionally eaten in central Vietnam.  So yummy!  I ordered it again to take away on the train today, and it was still great, even when cold.  I can’t get over the fruit and fruit juices here.  They are fantastic!  So flavourful, and refreshing.  Not a big fruit fan normally, I’m guzzling gallons of the stuff, and chomping my way through slices of pineapple, watermelon, and mango at breakfasts.  Yesterday I bought some fruit for the train journey – some lychees and some grapes.  I don’t know if we can get lychees in NZ, but they are so juicy and sweet.  They have a skin that needs to be peeled off, and then a soft white flesh inside around a large stone.  They are extremely juicy and quite sticky.  


I asked the stall holder how much for a bunch, and she wanted to charge me around NZ$15 for them, some grapes, something else I didn’t recognise, and a couple of mangoes.  Ultimately we agreed on about $7 for the lychees and the grapes.  Still, think I paid too much.  But they’re so good!

On the first night a few of us went for dinner at a restaurant called Tam Tam.  I ordered Cau Lau, another noodle dish from this region.  Again, exceptionally good!  It consisted of noodles, pork slices, lots of herbs and some veges. 

On my free day I hired a bike for the day for 30,000 Dong (about $2), and cycled into town, promptly starting off on the left had side, though I quickly realised my mistake!  The fitting at the tailor’s was hot and sticky enough to begin with, and then the power went out- including the lights and fans.  Apparently power outages in Hoi An are quite common.  There were two or three while we were there.  I thought it was amusing that I couldn’t get a fruit juice for lunch because they couldn’t power the blender.  But people just get on with it.

I visited a couple of ‘vestiges of interest’ as the map put it, that afternoon.  One was the Hoi An Museum of History and Culture.  It wasn’t what I expected, being pretty much one room in a small building.  The power was out when I arrived, which meant you couldn’t really see the exhibits in the back of the room where the sunlight didn’t reach.  They did have English translations (and French) so it was an improvement on some other places, but still wasn’t worth more than quarter of an hour. 

I also visited the Japanese covered bridge, built in xxx by the Japanese, it has become ‘the symbol of the city’ and is a shrine to boot.

The best was the traditional house I visited down by the river.  It was built hundreds of years ago and is regularly flooded by the river.  When this happens the lady just moves all her furniture to the second floor, and comes back down when the water passes!  They had marked the biggest floods on a wall on the ground floor – the highest from the 1960s was over my head, and one from 2010 was about shoulder height.  The guide explained big floods were becoming more frequent due to deforestation in the region. 

Street frontage.

Interior courtyard.

Interior with many intricately carved pieces of furniture.

In the corner there was a bed with a wooden frame with thin bamboo slats across it, and a finer bamboo mat (like a sushi mat) over the top.  A guide explained, with a grin, that they couldn’t have a mattress because with the children sleeping in the bed with them and weeing in the night you’d never get it dry.  With this arrangement it was possible to dry it out by placing a pot of hot coals underneath.

The other girl who was listening to the guide was less than impressed.

That night some of us went to a cooking class for dinner.  We prepared five dishes and ate them for our dinner.  I thought this cooking class was much better value than the other one I did, as it taught us to make dishes I liked and can probably replicate at home.  The teacher was a bubbly and enthusiastic young girl in her 20s.  She had very good English, and would break into song throughout the evening.   Such as “Sweet caramelise…” (Sweet Caroline) when caramelising aubergine.  We made spring rolls (quite different to the northern ones – less greasy, made with a lattice kind of paper, and no mayonnaise), green papaya salad, sweet and sour chicken soup, clay pot aubergine, and BBQ’d tuna in banana leaves.  Again, I thought this was the best meal so far!




The following morning we went on a group cycling trip through a rural area for about half an hour.  We stopped at someone’s house where there was rice laying out to dry on the driveway.  There were two bullocks in the paddock next door. 





Our guide explained to us that this family was moderately wealthy, and grew rice for a living.  They would sell it all and then buy the food they need from the markets.  A proportion of Vietnamese – the ‘Hungry Class’ – can’t grow enough to afford to buy their essentials for the year and end up in a cycle of debt as a result.  There used to be a belief that as god provides enough food for the elephant, so there will be enough food for your children, so don’t worry about how many you have.  This view is changing, and there is now a two child policy applying to everyone in Vietnam.  After some questioning we found out that contraception is not quite a taboo topic, but is not spoken about openly.  We figured this must make the two child policy a little difficult to comply with…

We boarded a boat shortly afterwards and were taken down the river to an island for a BBQ lunch.  The food was prepared by the girl form the cooking school and cooked by the guys from the boat.  We sat in a clearing, on the chairs from the boat, around little plastic tables, but with real crockery, drinking cans from the chilly bin.  The food was again fabulous and the clearing was a welcome relief from the heat of the bike ride.

For the afternoon’s entertainment we went round the circle singing the national anthem of our country and established that Vietnam and Poland, with a common communist heritage have very militaristic anthems.

video


That afternoon we picked up our final purchases, food for the train journey, and headed back to the hotel for a final swim before leaving this morning.

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