Hoi An and Hanoi, Vietnam

Hoi An and Hanoi, VietnamHaven’t written for a bit… having a laptop and plane tickets stolen and the ensuing bureaucratic nightmare will do that to ya… but back with the travel essays, will be trying to catch up over the next couple of weeks at every given opportunity… So, back to Vietnam:

A couple of days was enough to enjoy the charm of Hoi An and get a whole new wardrobe tailor made in the process. A couple more long bus rides then took us to Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital city, our final stop on the Vietnamese leg of our world trip.

Day 57 – 59, Hoi An, Vietnam – Ancient city, great food, cheap clothes

Our overnight bus pulled into Hoi An around 7am, and again, we stayed at one of the places recommended by the bus company/travel agent – a nice lodge, a room with a view and the right price, around US $12 if I remember rightly. Hoi An is renowned for its multitude of tailoring shops offering custom clothing at dirt cheap prices. The place also has a history dating back at least eight hundred years, and some of the food there is bloody fantastic.

Hoi An is a charming old city, with its stone paved roads and world heritage listed ancient buildings. Being a small flat city, it’s a great place to get around by bicycle (only US $2 per day to hire). There are a few museums and ancient buildings to explore. On some of these visits we learned that Hoi An was an ancient trade city which explained the strong Japanese and Chinese influences here.

On the day we arrived, we went to a restaurant (damned if I can remember their name, they are in the Lonely Planet) famous for their wontons and white roses. We were not let down, this food was extremely tasty. We had earlier decided to have a bit of a break from food as we’d been eating perhaps a little too well. I was feeling bloated from my Banh Mi and whatever-else-I-could-get-my-hands-on diet. So we ate well at said restaurant and then didn’t eat anything but thin soups and fruit juice for the next 31 hours (we were going for 36 but anything more than 24 would be fine). This was kind of a bummer seeing there was such good food here, but I guess the detox was needed.

We also visited a tailor where I had a pair of jeans, a winter coat, some business and casual shirts and a business suit tailor made. This was all less than $200. I even had a nice pair of leather shoes made. The trick to doing this is to only pay a deposit and leave yourself enough time to return for the fitting and inevitable adjustments. Only when you are happy, you pay the full price. We met a young Dutch fellow who fully paid upfront and had a morning bus the next day – he pretty much had to take what he got. Also, if you get time, get to the post office and post it all home so you don’t have to lug it around (we didn’t get a chance to post it so we lugged it around for quite a while).

On our last day we cycled a little out of town, which was pretty nice as any tourist vibe disappeared once we headed out of the main part of town. We rode past more lush green rice fields and saw locals making pottery and otherwise making a living along the river. After riding about for a while it started to rain. When it got to the point where we were getting a little too wet, we looked for a bar or eatery where we could take shelter and wait out the rain. Some old locals spotted us and invited us in to their bar. Or at least something like a bar. It was shelter anyway. It was hard to tell, there was no signage and nobody there really spoke English except for an English couple who were leaving a long trail of empty beer bottles behind – well, really just the guy. We managed to get some Coca-cola and a small bottle of whiskey which seemed to be all they had besides beer. That went down well seeing we hadn’t eaten for over a day. So we drank our whisky-and-cokes, had some non-conversations with the funny old folks there, took some photos and by then the rain had eased up and so we rode on back to the town.

Cycling in Hoi An
Cycling in Hoi An.

Hoi An Guys
Hoi An guys at the weird bar place.

We rode a bit more around Hoi An along the nice waterfront they have there and then decided to break our fast with some good local food. We bumped into the English couple again while we rode about – it wouldn’t be the last time we saw the jolly beer-drinking bloke either, but more about that later.

We stopped in at Café des Amis, a well renowned restaurant, and went all out with the five course special. Sounds fancy, but still super-cheap. I can’t remember all the dishes’ names but they were pretty much all fantastic Chinese-Vietnamese cuisine. Megan captured all of them on the trusty Canon EOS 400 DSLR.

Mr Nguyen Manh Kim
Mr Nguyen Manh Kim, head chef at Cafe des Amis. Photo courtesy of Meg.

Entree… was goood. Photo courtesy of Meg.

Vietnamese feast
Vietnamese feast! Photo courtesy of Meg.

Noodle type dish
Noodle type dish. Photo courtesy of Meg.

Creme Caramel dessert
Creme Caramel dessert. Photo courtesy of Meg.

We did all our final fittings for the clothing and shoes we had tailor made, getting them to do final adjustments once again until we were completely satisfied. The next morning, we packed up and took the bus out of Hoi An headed for Hanoi, via Hué. We had decided that we weren’t too excited about visiting Hué so instead of getting accommodation there, we just had a bite and a look around during the five hour wait for the evening bus to Hanoi.

The bus to Hanoi was an adventure in itself.

Day 60 – 63, Hanoi, Vietnam. The smokey capital of Vietnam.

The night bus from Hué was pretty screwy. We were a few minutes late for the designated meeting time for the bus (half an hour prior to departure time) and we ended up on a bus with no tourists, just all locals, which you would think was a good change, but there was very little conversation with other travellers (as we have pretty much zero Vietnamese language skills) and there were no announcements in English. These are the kind of buses that cram people in that they pick up along the way. So much so that people had to sleep in the aisles. We had two stops along the way, the dinner and toilet stop (where we enjoyed a little national pride with the Vietnam vs Thailand soccer match on TV) and a mistifying midnight stop in a nowhere-town police station where we were held up for about 2 hours not knowing what was going on. The police eventually searched the bus and from inside the luggage compartment, proceded to confiscate several sacks containing live pigs. This was obvious from the feet sticking out of the top of the sacks and the very noisy squealing. It was all a little unnerving, especially when you’re just trying to get a little sleep aboard a pig-smuggling bus.

Anyway, a couple of hours and no explanations later, we were back on our way to the Vietnamese capital city. In the morning, we arrived in Hanoi… well at least the outskirts. The bus dropped everyone off at some dusty outskirts of the city. A very disappointing conclusion to what was a decent travel experience with the open-ticket bus trip option. I think if it were a bus full of tourists it would have been entirely different but I guess, hey, just don’t be late for your bus.

Anyway, so we’re there on a dusty lot outside of any map we had, all the other passengers having gone about their business and us with no taxis, travel agents, telephones, language skills, etc. So anyway, after failing to find any cabs, we hired some motorcycle drivers. I wish we had a photo of us on the back of these tiny motorcycles with our massive backpacks on our backs and extra luggage on the driver’s laps, but there was no way the camera was possibly going to make it out. I felt like I was going to fall off the back of the bike every time the driver accelerated, but anyway, we made it to our budget hotel of choice to get a room. The lady there found us a room, oddly though, when she was showing us to our room, it was down the street and around the block within another hotel. But anyway, it was a good enough room at Wing Hotel (if my memory serves me) for US $10 per night.

A good scrub, rest and a feed later, we got on some bikes and rode about the big city. There was a lot of traffic and smog, but somehow I still quite enjoyed riding a bike around Hanoi. It was pretty much flat and there was a large lake in the centre of they city right near where we were staying so it made for good riding.

In the few days we were there, we enjoyed many sights. We both got a little bit of respiratory infection illness, maybe from the smog or the wintery conditions (a change from the heat we’d been used to), but nothing that held us down too much. I’d bought some cheap “just in case” antibiotics from a chemist in Hoi An (she was quite keen on selling me some generic Viagra too), which would come in handy if we got a coral infection from scuba diving or if either of us fell sick, which was the case now. Wouldn’t be the last time I got sick either, but that’s another story.

While we were riding around Hanoi on bikes with respiratory illness (us, not the bikes) we managed to catch some classic Vietnamese Water Puppetry, which is actually a lot better than it sounds. In a nice serious looking theatre, a bunch of puppeteers stand waste deep in water behind a screen and operate puppets in front of the screen via poles, levers and other fancy contraptions that sit under the water. They tell traditional Vietnamese folklore stories to the accompaniment of a live band and plenty of fireworks.

We also got over to the Temple of Literature which is a something like 900 year old university, one of the oldest in Asia, with lots of statues of dragons and stone turtles with stelae on their backs. One also cannot visit Hanoi without joining the big queue to visit Uncle Ho’s preserved body at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and nearby Presidential Residence, where you can see where Uncle Ho ate, slept and kept his cars. A travel buddy we made, young Dan from London rode with us to the Mausoleum to check this stuff out too – we met him in Hoi An and bumped into him again in Hanoi, as you do.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi
Temple of Literature, Hanoi.

Temple of Literature, Hanoi
Dragon sculptures and incense at the Temple of Literature, Hanoi.

Guard at Presidential Residence
Guard at Presidential Residence of Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi.

We were originally planning to see the famous Halong Bay in the north as well but we were running short on time and figured mid-Winter wasn’t the best time to see it anyway, so add it to the “let’s see it next time” list.

We spent almost four weeks in total in Vietnam. This is a great amount of time to see a lot of Vietnam but you could easily spend more. Three months might be a good period to settle in a bit and get to know some locals and get off the tourist trail. I hope we can come back another time to see the things we missed out on, and to really soak up the good places we did see. As I’ve told friends and family, Vietnam was certainly one of the best places we’d visited so far. The food, the beauty and variety of the land from mountains to beaches, the affordability of course – it’s a pretty cheap place to travel and shop, and the friendly nature of Vietnamese people make it a great place to return to.

On January 28, we got a ride out to Hanoi international airport and took a Vietnam Airlines plane to Hong Kong. We spent only two days in Hong Kong, which was a good taste for the place and probably enough for us at this stage. More soon (I promise)…

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