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Trip Report Vietnam Part Three - Hoi An

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It has been suggested that the whole thread might be valuable so here are the links to Parts One and Two.

http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/vietnam-part-one-our-intro-to-ho-chi-minh-city.cfm
http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/vn-part-two-first-few-days-in-hanoi.cfm

Before I embark on a description of this part of the trip, it is probably a good time to explain why we spent so much time in “civilization”. While we have taken a few day tours with groups and even an occasional individualized private tour, we generally shy away from formal tours. On nearly all our other trips to Asia, we have hired a driver for a week or two and let serendipity take over. We had hoped to do the same in Vietnam. We had read that a private car and driver would cost us upwards of $100 a day, but refused to believe it. We had routinely spent between $20 and $40 for a car and driver. Vietnam is different. We asked several locals during the trip, and no one had a firm answer, but it seems there could be several reasons. Fuel is relatively expensive. Also, very few people can afford their own cars, and entrepreneurship is yet to become fully developed. However, we are nothing if not flexible travelers. As we had already planned to be based in cities and we seemed to be slow learners of how to use the public transport, we just decided to stay put. We would try to immerse ourselves in city life. We were told that if we came to VN and saw only the cities, we would not come to know VN. While we didn’t come to know rural VN, I think we came away with some understanding of the life of many Vietnamese who have neither the time nor resources to experience anything but the city where they were born.

So, as much as we had enjoyed the trip so far, we were looking forward to getting away from big city life. Once again we flew with Vietnam Airlines, this time from Hanoi to Danang, the closest airport to Hoi An. We landed early on a bright and sunny morning. Once again, we had arranged airport pickup – we haven’t been so spoiled for years! There is a really cheap ($1-$2) shuttle bus from Danang to Hoi An, but you need to get from the airport to town to pick it up and it has a somewhat fixed schedule. You can also pick up a taxi to Hoi An at the airport, but despite the fact that we had become very experienced with haggling with taxi drivers, we tired of it. So we decided to economize on time and pay the $18 that the small hotel charged us to send a driver for us, which was roughly what a taxi would have cost anyways. It meant we could also avoid Danang, which at the time we thought was a good idea. Not sure if that was wise, as our two in-and-out glimpses made Danang look really quite appealing –especially the beaches!

As we were whisked through the countryside, we were treated to a broad expanse of relatively fallow fields with hills in the distance. We were sorry to miss the verdant green of swaying rice fields, but the vistas were still lovely. It brought the same joy that traveling the prairies brings me back home (home in this case being my native Canada). We were delivered to a very pretty set of cottages, called Betel Garden Homestay, outside of the main part of Hoi An. It is not a stay someone’s home, but rather a stay in a small hotel. There was a lot of angst in our choice of accommodation in Hoi An. As a tourist town, there are loads of choices, from huge 4 star resorts and monolithic properties, to an actual stay in someone’s home. We opted for middle of the road. But we wanted a pool. Even though it was November, it was hot and oh so humid. And we wanted to be walking distance to the town center. Betel Garden was love at first sight, so much so that we ended up booking an extra night for a total of 4. There are several cottage style buildings, set in a beautiful garden with betel trees, flowers and birds. Some buildings are two-story, and there are various room sizes, but all have either covered porches or balconies. They have a restaurant serving excellent food all day, and breakfast is included in the room rate. They will arrange tours, if you wish, as well as massages, nail treatment, laundry, etc. We paid $60 per night for the room and thought we received our money’s worth.

As we had left Hanoi so early, we decided to have breakfast before heading out to investigate the town. The choice was fairly extensive but I think we had much the same breakfast each morning: eggs, some kind of meat, bread and coffee. I also had fresh fruit and Mike had fresh squeezed juice. I say “some kind of meat” because it was a couple of days before we realized that the choice of bacon or ham was not really our choice. We were always asked, but no matter what we answered, we seemed to get what the kitchen had. You never really knew which was going to be good on a given day, which was why we tried to order one of each. So funny that it was hardly worth a complaint.

Afterwards, armed with our trusty paper hotel map and recommendations for lunch, we headed towards town. The walk was further than we had thought – about a half hour. Initially, every xe-om (motorbike) driver and the occasional taxi would try to get us to hire them. After the first day in this fairly small city, though, most realized we were just walkers and we were left to make our own way. But we were pretty much the only walkers. Others from the hotel either cycled or took taxis. My bum never really liked bikes, and Mike seems preternaturally determined not to go that route. His normal willingness to experience the new, does not extend to physical pursuit. His failing hips don’t help. And walking has worked for decades, so a-walking we do go. Aside from its obvious physical benefit, you open up a multitude of experiences that moving through the landscape more quickly doesn’t allow. You can wave and smile at every resident and shopkeeper. You can smell the flowers, see the bugs and birds, and pet the dogs. You feel just a little more connected to the city or town or village. We so enjoyed not being rushed on this first ever, lengthy trip. Where we would normally take a day to accomplish something, we really weren’t trying to accomplish anything, and we could take two or three to see what would turn up.

There were the tiny neighborhood coffee shops along the route, each with its own charm, and some almost completely hidden. The number of small shops and street side vendors increased as we edged closer to the town center. Soon we were in tourist heaven (or hell) depending on your expectations and desires. We weren’t planning to do a lot of buying, so at first the shops were just a curiosity: how could so many shops selling exactly the same items survive? Obviously bargaining played a large part and certainly in peak season, which this was not, there would be no paucity of tourists prey. The central market is interesting whether you shop or not. We never did manage to make it there early in the morning, but if you stay more central, I hear it’s a good thing to be there when buyers and sellers are going at it. There are innumerable restaurants both in the old town center. Of the ones we tried, none were outstanding, but many had very good food, and often loads of atmosphere. On the other side of the river across from the old part of town, is another whole area to explore for coffee, snacks and full meals. It is far less touristy and much cheaper. And one day we took a walk to the closest beach and discovered a completely different set of hotels, restaurants, bars and coffee shops. So, lots to explore in the way of food and drink. One place we frequented so many times that the staff remembered us and was extra friendly. That was very helpful on the occasion when I managed to cover the nearby Buddha statue in sri racha hot sauce. The waitress very sweetly, and without any fuss, brought extra napkins and a cloth to wash him off. Oops! There was one restaurant of note, which offers bia hoi, great service and very good cheap Vietnamese food. Kim Nhung on the western edge of town (109 Tran Hung Dao) was rather out of the way for us, but had several tables of repeat visitors, judging by their conversations.

One day we took a private boat tour ($25) arranged by the Betel Garden. It lasted a few hours and being out on the river, was great. It was our first time seeing boats with eyes – painted on the front hull to guard against danger, and our first knowledge of huge fishing nets mounted on framing which allowed the nets to be lowered and raised daily. Aside from the joy of being on the water, we went to several craft villages. They were interesting enough to see once, but only the boat-building village offered anything we hadn’t seen before in other places and other times. I spent quite awhile watching them choose wood, measure and match it with other pieces, and hand assemble everything. The boats are quite sizable and are sold to many fishermen across the area. You are encouraged to walk through all the shops, which we did. I found the prices very high and the quality often not very good. I did buy a handful of wooden dragonflies, which are unique to Hoi An and great fun. They will balance on their “noses” on the tip of your finger – a great hit back home! They are quite fragile though, but I had a brought plastic lunch container that worked perfectly for safe storage. We also saw an amazing intricately decorated lantern, which won an award at last year’s lantern festival. You can hop across the river and visit the villages own your own by taking a ferry and you can hire a boat on your own as well.

As far as shopping, we were traveling light, so the only temptation I planned to succumb to was the purchase of several lanterns at one of the lantern making shops. We ended up at a small one called Tuoi Ngoc (103 Tran Phu St). They were really inexpensive, and while I didn’t do the expected bargaining, the owner voluntarily gave me a discount of about 15%. Watching the production was very interesting too. Each girl makes the lanterns in a solo production line, working on several lanterns at once, through the different stages of completion. However, it was more than a little concerning that they used mere paper masks to protect themselves from the quite noxious smelling fumes of the glue. I left the shop with a veritable bouquet of folded up colored lanterns!

We bought a few t-shirts at the Bambou clothing store. Not all the clothes are made from bamboo fibre, but all of it is quality. There is also an outlet in HCMC, which was running a sale by the time we returned. Prices and selection is different though, so check out both stores. Mike purchased a piece of embroidered art at an antique store across from the Traditional Culture Museum on Ngyuen Thai Hoc. We returned later in the day and were treated to what might be the smallest water puppet show. It was so far from professional that we spent the whole time laughing (quietly I assure you, and without witnesses). But the puppets themselves were quite lovely.

We also picked up a beautiful piece of art by a local artist at a small gallery at 23 Ngueyn Thi Minh Khai Street. I don’t know the name of the shop, but the artist’s name is Nguyen Van Ky, and he has some degree of fame both in VN and France. His wonderfully colorful pictures reminded us of those by the Australian artist Ken Done. In the end I came away with an entirely different view of the shopping experience than Jhubbel, whose exploits I so love to read. I think that given unlimited luggage space, or the knowledge that they really weren’t too strict about overweight luggage, I would have been in a shopping frenzy. In fact, had I taken the friend’s advice of doing all our shopping in Hoi An, the overweight charges would have been worth it.

We quite enjoyed the amble back and forth to town and made it at least once a day if not twice. Only once did I accept a ride on a bike: a woman who lived next to the Betel Garden saw us walking in one of the torrential rainstorms common in the late fall, and insisted I accept a ride. She wanted to take both of us, but Mike insisted on walking as we only about 10 minutes away by foot from the hotel. We both arrived back soaked to the skin. It was the last time we went out without umbrella and/or raingear. Although Typhoon Haiyan was threatening during our time in the center, Hoi An escaped being seriously affected. Have a look though at the photos for how far up the water went during the 2011 flood.

Hoi An is in fact an Ancient Town deemed a World Heritage Site so one day we took a guided tour. You can get tickets (~$6 depending on the exchange rate) in a shop near the market which can include guide services. The fee lets you choose 5 out of a total of almost 20. You can buy multiple tickets is you want to see more, and you don’t have to see them all sites at the same time. We chose two of the old houses, a history museum, a culture museum and a folklore museum. Actually we also saw the Covered Japanese Bridge, too without having to pay, as the guide whisked us across after whispering in the ear of the bridge attendant. We timed our trip to the Hoi An Traditional Art house in order to attend a traditional music performance. If you go, get there early, as it’s popular with local as well as foreign tourists, grab a stool and start a front row close to the stage. They might shift you farther away, but you will still be in the front row and sitting down.

And each afternoon and evening, rain or shine we took a dip in the pool. It was small but lovely and while the sun was shining a great relief from the heat and the only time I have done sunbathing in a few years. What luxury!

By our third night, all the cottages and rooms were full and we were invited to an evening of dinner and drinks at the hotel’s expense. I didn’t count, but there must have been about 30 of us, treated to excellent food, and unlimited beer. We got to know our fellow travelers a little bit. Near us were an Australian family of four on holiday, an older Austrian couple, also on holiday, and an American couple who were in Vietnam because of a family wedding and decided to do a little touristing while they were in the country. We all had a great time and most of us staggered back to our rooms J

The last day I arrange with the hotel to have someone come and give manicures to both of us. A diminutive young girl arrived at our room. I sat on the lounge on the porch while she gave me a manicure and fancy polish and then a pedicure. It came as a great surprise to Mike when I invited him to join me and then promptly left him with her with instructions to do his nails too. I don’t think he’s ever had a manicure, but he didn’t refuse. He claims he didn’t want to be rude, but she was very pretty, so you decide. Cost for 2 manis and 1 pedi - $10.

On the wish-we-had list: evening folk games in the town center; cycling tour of Hoi An (you need to arrange this in advance and it is always a morning tour); car and driver to the surrounding countryside; a trip out the relatively secluded Cham Islands

Link to pictures:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/114247595@N07/sets/72157640198924134/

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