Central Vietnam: A Tale of Two Very Different Ancient Cities. #1: Hoi An

I visited Hoi An and Hue in the middle of the country.  I was really excited about Hoi An, since I’d heard such good things, and it didn’t disappoint.  Hoi An is very picturesque and instantly won me over.  Hue I did not find as beautiful, but it also has its charm and it did grow on me.

I took the night train from Nha Trang to Hoi An, which I was a little nervous about since I’d only been able to book a “hard sleeper” (6 people to a compartment) and was still feeling pretty nauseous from whatever bug I’d been battling there.  But the locals in my compartment were very sweet (helping me with my bags and getting me safely stowed away in the very top bunk) and Advil PM was my failsafe way to sleep through most of the journey.

Slept very snugly in berth 24.
Slept very snugly in berth 24.

I did arrive a bit groggy, so I spent some quality time at the hotel pool before biking into old town.  I made the novice mistake of going out between 12:00-2:30 and almost melted.  The heat and humidity here is no joke!  But at that time of day, most of the locals are napping so the merchants aren’t putting as much energy into hawking their wares.  So it actually makes for a more relaxing experience.  And, an afternoon shower cures all! 

Scenes around old town.
Scenes around old town.

Hoi An Hoi An

Agent Shell.
Agent Shell.

Hoi An Hoi An

The original banana seat bike?
The original banana seat bike?
I was so shocked to see garbage sorting that I had to take a photo.  It's usually hard enough to find a trash can in Asia, let alone designated ones.
I was so shocked to see garbage sorting that I had to take a photo. It’s usually hard enough to find a trash can in Asia, let alone designated ones.
Strolling the alleyways of old town.
Strolling the alleyways of old town.
Birds are a big deal here.
Birds are a big deal here.

Revived, I had a great dinner and even caught some of the parade for the Full Moon celebration.  Apparently every month the locals have a parade and send floating candles down the river representing their wishes.  Buddhists love their celebrations! 

Buddha sighting!
Buddha sighting!

Hoi An

The parade continued on the river.
The parade continued on the river.
Make a wish!
Make a wish!
The Japanese bridge and the wishing candles.
The Japanese bridge and the wishing candles.
So many lanterns to chose from!
So many lanterns to chose from!
The river front at night.
The river front at night.

The next day I did the Taste of Hoi An food tour that I’d heard so much about – and it was amazing!  It’s run by an expat Aussie (Neville) who is a bundle of infectious energy and excitement.  From the start I knew he meant business since he set my pick-up time for 7:05 a.m. – standard operating procedure for local-run tours is to give a rounded time (say 7:00 or 7:30) and then show up at least 30 minutes late.  On the tour we tried 44 dishes, and by the end I really couldn’t safely hold down even one more bite.  But spending the day sharing some exciting new cuisine with other foodies snapped me right out of my travel fatigue and made me excited about being in Vietnam again – yay!

It’s amazing how fresh all the food is here.  They slaughter the meat the morning it’s sold and sell out by about noon.  The market vendors have their regular customers, so they know just how much meat they’ll need to bring to sell in a day.  Like everywhere in Asia, the fish and small animals are kept alive as long as possible.  So it’s pretty common to see the live chickens hanging off the side of a scooter zooming across town.  They don’t use refrigeration — it’s considered dirty (except for drinks, thankfully).  And unlike Myanmar where the meat was thick with flies in the market, there really aren’t many flies in a Vietnamese market since there is nothing rotten for them to flock to. 

This all means that there is not the same imposed separation between animal and meat like there is in the West, where we buy our slabs of meat wrapped in plastic, never having to look into the beady eyes of the chicken from which it came.  At times the empathy I fell for even the live fish in the market makes me consider turning vegetarian.  But I’m not ready to go there just yet!  Most of the time I don’t quite know what I’m getting in a restaurant (I’ve end up with a hell of a lot of noodle soup) so trying to go veggie while travelling would be more annoying than anything.

Ice cream at 9:00 a.m.?  Yep, that's how we roll on the food tour.
Ice cream at 9:00 a.m.? Yep, that’s how we roll on the food tour.
Fresh meat!
Fresh meat!
One of the locals our guide made us pose with.  She colored her teeth black on purpose (reportedly it was a trend many years ago).
One of the locals our guide made us pose with. She colored her teeth black on purpose (reportedly it was a trend many years ago).
A former solder for Saigon (i.e., someone who actually likes Americans).
A former solder for Saigon (i.e., someone who actually likes Americans).
She really is the queen!
She really is the queen!

Trying to work off some of the food indulgence I’d subjected myself to, I rode out to the beach in the afternoon.  Hoi An is not known for its beach, but it is really nice.  The afternoon storm clouds actually materialized into rain (they usually don’t) and so I ducked under a tarp strung up between some palm trees and sheltering a group of plastic tables and chairs, and shared a beer with a random Canadian who was also escaping the rain.  The woman who owned the restaurant was very sweet and really wanted me to eat something – I had a hard time explaining that I was still stuffed from the morning. 

The next day I decided to get a scooter and go out to the My Son ruins (another UNESCO world heritage site down!).  I found the ruins easily enough, but on the way back I took a wrong turn and went a bit out of my way.  I realize the road didn’t look familiar so I stopped to ask some locals for directions.  Of course they didn’t speak any English so I basically said “Hoi An?” and pointed the way I was going.  They conferred among themselves and then gave me a long explanation in Vietnamese.  I gave the universal shoulder shrug to show I didn’t understand and repeated my simplified question plus hand gesture.  I finally got a shake of the head to tell me I was in fact going the wrong way.  So I pointed back the way I’d come and motioned for straight and then curve right, and got a nod “yes.”  It’s amazing how much you can get by with hand gestures.  Language barrier, what language barrier? 

The ruins at My Son.
The ruins at My Son.

Hoi An Hoi An

A shady path is a beautiful thing.
A shady path is a beautiful thing.

I’d had a lofty goal of going to the marble mountains that day as well, but opted to just hang out at the beach since I’d already spent so much time scootering around and getting lost.  So I drove North a bit from Hoi An and found “Hidden Beach” – a spot I wish I’d found earlier.  It’s basically two families who live on this stretch of amazingly beautiful beach and have nice chairs and umbrellas set up.  I got a beautiful fruit plate, a fresh coconut, and a peaceful place to take an afternoon nap.  The owner also had me try some green mango from her tree, with fish sauce+sugar+chilies to dip it in.  It was amazingly refreshing!  She was very sweet and made sure to check in on me and chat me up periodically. 

Chilling in my own private paradise at Hidden Beach.
Chilling in my own private paradise at Hidden Beach (on China Beach).
Basket boats on China Beach.
Basket boats on China Beach.
I watched this guy dig a hole, then bury himself in it and just sit there.  I have no idea why.
I watched this guy dig a hole, then bury himself in it and just sit there. I have no idea why.

Hoi An

I also took a snorkel trip to the Cham Islands and met some fun people on the boat (Katherine, Edwina, and Cody – I now have a whole list of new bands to check out since Cody let me pump him for information, thanks, Cody!).  The islands are beautiful and the time on the boat was relaxing.  But at our first stop we saw a huge jelly fish in the water – big enough to see clearly from the second level of the boat – and there were more where that came from.  I went in the water anyway and avoided getting stung, but spent most of my time watching out for and dodging jelly fish as opposed to looking at the fishies.  I did see a cool stripy water snake in the shallows, and was relieved when it had no interest in coming to say hello!

The Cham Islands.
The Cham Islands.

Hoi An Hoi An

I was a bit sad to leave Hoi An, but the pit stop for another banh me from the Banh Me Queen and the amazingly beautiful train ride up to Hue made it all okay. 

The view from the train.  Can you believe the locals draw the curtains (they'd rather hide from the sun than see the view).
The view from the train. Can you believe the locals draw the curtains (they’d rather hide from the sun than see the view).

Hoi An Hoi An

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