Following on from 15 days in Vietnam – North…
After a genuinely glorious sleep on the night train, I arrived in Huế around 9am and made my way to Kne Sanh Homestay. Even this early the temperature was unbearable, but I dragged myself away from the fan and into town to explore the ancient citadel. Every 10 metres a cyclo driver excitedly flagged me down, but I politely declined. They were surprised by my refusal and will to walk. To be honest, so was I. The torrid heat of the afternoon was making itself known. But so was my dwindling funds and weight gain; I could feel my thighs chaffing so thought it best to get some exercise. The Imperial City is an astounding piece of Vietnamese history, but unfortunately my brain and body was far too frazzled to appreciate it by that point.
Without meaning to sound judgemental (though I’m aware it probably does), I noticed that S.E. Asia is flooded with what I would call attention seeking missiles. The kind of people – as lovely as they might be – that just want to make sure you aware of their existence, above anything else. They go in all guns blazing and I’ll be damned if you ever manage to duck for cover. Of course, the advantage is it’s very easy to make friends; the disadvantage being you may find them effing annoying. Being slightly older than the average traveller demographic in Asia, my patience and interest in entertaining these people doesn’t last long, and I suppose it’s also a reflection of being comfortable in my own company.
I met Kristen – the only person seemingly not bouncing off the walls – in the dorm room and we wandered down the road to grab a bite of local street food. I had done my utmost to avoid a group of particularly strong attention seeking missiles throughout the day, but after some feeble attempts at delivering an excuse, agreed to sit down with them at dinner. All credit due to them, they had created quite a Vietnamese spread with the hostel owner, including bird fish and catfish they caught earlier in the day (the latter being exceptionally moist!).
Not immediately won over by Hué and keen to keep time on my side, I arranged my exit for Hoi An for the next morning. I wanted to travel via the Hai Van Pass, the mountainous stretch of highway connecting Lang Co in Hué to Da Nang, which you may well have seen on the Top Gear Vietnam Special all the way back in 2008 – Clarkson claimed it’s “one of the best ocean roads in the world”, and it’s pretty much been on every traveller’s itinerary since.
It’s very common to hire bikes to make the trip, though I decided I wanted to ride pillion for several reasons; It meant I could fully enjoy the scenery, not worry about getting myself lost (inevitable) and the minor issue of the 20kg backpack I would need to transport too. I paid Mr Ty 1,276,000 VND (about $48 at the time) to take me and my oversized bag to Hoi An, with a few planned stops along the way. He picked me up around 8.30am and after solidly strapping my bag to the back of the bike, handed me the helmet that looked the least like an old colander. We set off driving through the mountains and made a stop at a road side café after an hour or so for an iced coffee.
Just going to take a second here to talk about Vietnamese coffee. It’s incredible. As the world’s second largest producer, they certainly know a thing or two about coffee beans. It’s almost always rich in flavour and even deeper in colour. That is of course unless you have your coffee white (blasphemy in my eyes). If you’re one of those aforementioned coffee-drinkers, you would probably be as shocked as me when you taste your first white Vietnamese coffee…because they use condensed milk instead of pasteurised milk. And my god are they generous. As if you weren’t getting enough high from the caffeine, the sugar content is sure to give you a kick. I must admit though, my black -coffee-drinking-cold-heart slightly fell in love with the sweet, white iced-coffee… but let’s keep that one between us.
We rode through a scenic fishing village and made our first proper stop at Suoi Voi (Elephant Springs) for a dip in the river. Unsurprisingly, I was far from the only person there, but if you can forget the people around you for one minute, it’s a pretty gorgeous stream located within the forest and amongst mountains. Plus, it was my opportunity to ride an elephant guilt-free (if you haven’t read my Elephant Nature Park post, please do!) – how often do you see rocks carved into Elephants, and no-one knows who dunnit?!
We drove on for a few more hours, then over a long bridge which took us along the coast and ultimately gave us the most gorgeous view of Lang Co beach. Climbing to an elevation of 496 metres, at the summit sit the ruins of a bullet ridden fort which was used as a bunker by the Southern Vietnamese and US armies. I wish I had done a bit more research on the history behind this part of the journey, as there was little to distinguish this as anything other than a few disused buildings. After the last stretch, with the high rises of Da Nang in sights, we stopped off for lunch on the outskirts. It seemed this was Mr Ty’s favourite spot and he very presented me with a hearty plate of local food. Though light years ahead of my Vietnamese, Mr Ty’s English was broken and often hard to understand, which lead to a lot of laughing and smiling but not too much comprehensive conversation. We did still talk to/at each other though; somehow the silence felt more stupid than the lack of understanding. Doing the day long trip with him was a joy; he was so proud to show me everything along the way and you could see he was just as enchanted as me. Our final stop was the Marble Mountains which I wouldn’t particularly write home about.
Đèo Hải Vân or ‘the sea of clouds’ earns its poetic name from when mist from the South China Sea rises into the surrounding forests, clinging to the mountain tops. Clouds had characterized the first half of our trip (see pretty much every blog post in South America), yet the first time I should be expecting them, I was greeted with clear blue skies. Still, no complaints; I had the wind in my hair and the sun on my face and it was glorious! Naturally, I had not applied sufficient sun cream, and only noticed the pink burn on top of my thighs when Mr. Ty produced me a cold flannel and politely put it on my lap over lunch. Clearly it was not his first time dealing with a stupid, optimistic Brit. Note: you can see the colour starting to show in the photo below:
He dropped me off and we said our goodbyes, not before him trying to convince me to shop at a specific tailor – setting me up for what was about to come. Hoi An is famous for its exceptionally cheap tailoring, where you can have clothes/shoes/bags/etc. designed and created in a matter of days, if not hours. Which is incredible, unless you don’t want to buy anything. Women on bicycles have no qualms about following you down the street, pushing you towards a shop, which, is relatively easy to dodge. But tailors themselves are a whole other breed, so be cautious about ‘browsing’. My advice would be: know what you want before you go, ideally pick a tailor before you go (trip advisor is a good place to start), and at all other times, look as disinterested and poor as possible.
For my two nights, I paid $7 dollars at a basic hostel called Hoah Bing. They had a good breakfast, but I had a minor falling out when they tried charging me a ridiculous commission on a bus fare I could buy down the road which resulted in her loudly telling me when checkout was the next morning… Lucky for me, Kristen got in touch saying she was in Hoi An and wanting to move hostels too. We splashed out an extra $4 a night and booked ourselves a fancy hotel room half way between town and the beach with the best outdoor pool to lounge by and all the freebies for me to nick. To keep me grounded, I did the 1.5km walk to the hotel with 20kg on my back, 5kg on the front and 35+ degree heat beating down, losing about half my water weight in sweat. After a long period of doing bugger all by the pool, we wandered down to the beach and had squid and scallops, amongst other things, on the waterfront for about 100,000 VND per dish. Kristen was my dining soul mate as she was always up for getting lots to share! We wandered back into town and checked out the famous Japanese Bridge.
Before our move to the hotel, I was increasingly hot, bothered and irritable. Tiredness had hit me like a ton of bricks and the heat was causing me to stay inside the windowless dorm and take nearly day long siestas. I aimed to use this down time to write, but I couldn’t get my brain to function further than aimlessly scrolling through Facebook. It’s amazing how surroundings change everything; sat by the pool I wrote, and wrote and wrote. My writers block was lifted, and so was the government block on WordPress and any other ‘opinionated’ site, thanks to sneaky Kristen helping me access this by proxy! Soon enough, I was illegally back up and running
The next morning, we got up at 4am and headed down to An Bang Beach for a spot of stand up paddle board whilst the sun rose – how effing cool is that?! It was one of the most relaxing, beautiful and surprisingly strenuous activities I did on my trip. It cost us $50, which is an awful lot for a traveller, but that did include four hours on the board with our instructor and all round cool guy Jono, as well as a kick-ass BLT and iced-coffee at the end.
I chilled by the pool whilst Kristen caught up on sleep and then we headed out for an afternoon snack to try Hoi An’s famous dish: White Rose Dumplings. We also walked to Tra Que Vegetable Village and watched the traditional farmers atop the bison in the fields. We stopped for lunch at Tra Que Water Wheel where we had the juiciest green papaya salad with peanuts – one of my favourite South East Asian dishes!
I had decided to extend my stay in Hoi An to the nearly five days as I found out upon arrival that the monthly Lantern festival would be falling on that coming Saturday. I’m glad I did – I had time to properly relax and soak up the sublime sun – my only regret is I didn’t use the time before to visit Sa Pa in the North of Vietnam! In the evening, we headed to a restaurant called Morning Glory (it’s the name of a tasty vegetable dish, by the way…) which is one of a few by famous Vietnamese chef, Ms Vy. I would highly recommend eating here, and it’s far more reasonable than you might imagine! We wandered around town soaking up the festival atmosphere and joining everyone in lighting a lantern, then letting it float down the river, creating a flickering sea of light.
The following day we explored some of the temples and popular sights. There is a bizarre entry system for the old town, that only seems to apply every now and again and depending on who you ask. You pay 120,000 VND for five tickets to any of the sights, though there doesn’t seem to be am exact list anywhere so you just have to guess/hope you’ve come across the best ones. Places like the Japanese Bridge and main temples were always manned, however. After collecting my cheap handmade shirt dress from a smaller tailor by the water side, we got ice cream and then made our last stop at the famous Banh Mi Queen for a sandwich. Heading back to our seemingly luxurious hotel, we parted ways and got on yet another bloody overnight bus. (I would now highly recommend flying from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh for reasons that will become clear, plus it’s actually very cheap!).
…continued in 15 days in Vietnam: South
Love, Lottie xx