November 23, 2009
When we checked out of our hotel in Hue this morning, we knew we’d have a problem. Our “old” hotel hadn’t told our “new” hotel that we had paid a deposit so we had to stand around and wait while the lady came back and sorted everything out. I didn’t care how the deposit was returned (given back to us in cash or knocked off the current hotel bill) but I wanted it back one way or another! After some to-ing and from-ing, it was all sorted and we paid in Vietnamese Dong, again ripped-off on the exchange rate. Today I couldn’t be bothered arguing.
The bus to Hoi An was thankfully a little more roomy than the one yesterday but the bumpy roads and constant horn-blowing by the driver were giving me a headache. Every time they overtake, they beep their horn to let someone know they are overtaking – I guess mirrors here are for checking your 1980s style hair-do than checking for other traffic!
Nonetheless, it is great to sit and watch the scenery go by. From the small towns and cool buildings to the vast expanse of green rural land sweeping past, the countryside here has far more appeal to me than what we have seen in the cities so far. It’s just a shame the view has only been from a bus window so far.
When the bus finally arrived in Hoi An after about 4 hours, we were dropped off at some random hotel on the edge of town, nowhere near our destination. Thankfully the town is not very big but it was annoying the way they almost insisted we took one of their taxis. We refused, grabbed a map and headed out, followed by two or three other couples. It was a good half an hour walk to the hotel but the weather had stayed dry today and it wasn’t too humid just yet. The hotel was easy enough to find and the woman was very helpful checking us in and confirming our trip for tomorrow to My Son ruins and our bus back for the next day.
In the afternoon, we headed into the centre of town and wandered around to find a place for lunch. We went to a place called Blue Dragon which supports local children. Here we were able to sample Cao Lau, a local noodle speciality including bean sprouts and salad and often meat. This can only be had in this area as the specials noodles must be cooked in water from the Ba Le well. I had the meat option and Elizabeth had the vegetable one plus a plate of spring rolls on the side. Everything we had was really good and we’ve both really enjoyed most of the food we’ve had in Vietnam. The regional variety has been good with each little town having their own slight differences and flavours, and even their own beers. Here I tried the local beer but it wasn’t as good as the Huda I’d been drinking in Hue.
We walked around a couple of sights in the town which were part of the world heritage sight here. The first was a temple and the second a covered bridge. We couldn’t go in either one without a ticket but we peeked in and they looked more impressive from the outside anyway. There were lots of tourist shops around here including lots of art galleries and a couple of photography ones. The photos were cool but I didn’t want to buy any as I’d rather use my own snaps than hang someone elses. There were lots of shops selling goods made by local people including some made by local disabled children. There were lots of great looking things but nothing we wanted enough to buy. I did however succumb in the market and bought two Lacoste polo shirts for a combined total of about $8 having shopped around and bargained down from a price of about $8 each!
For dinner we headed to a small restaurant called Café 96, another place based down by the river just beyond where we had lunch. They had more local dishes here and after some amazing fresh spring rolls, I had a chicken dish with chilli and lemongrass which was really spicy again! For dessert we both tried pancakes which were a local speciality, mine with bananas and Elizabeth’s with lime and honey. They were both good but were quite eggy flavoured and really thick, not what we were expecting.
Walking back we decided to try the fresh local beer. We had seen it advertised in a few places and it was 4000 Dong for a glass, which is about 25 cents! The beer was good, nothing special, but you can’t argue with the value for money!
November 24, 2009
Today we took a trip out to the My Son site which is the ancient remains of the Chan Empire. It is around an hour from Hoi An and our little minibus got us there easily, if fairly bumpily!
Entering the site was really pretty. The ruins are amongst the surrounding forests and after leaving the car park we headed along the tree-lined path before getting our first glimpse of the ruins. Having left at 8am, we were hoping we would get here nice and early to avoid too many other tour groups and we were grateful when we arrived that the area was pretty quiet.
While the guide was talking, I decided to have a wander around the site rather than listen. I am starting to find that at some places, the history and meaning behind the ruins or artifacts is nowhere near as interesting as walking amongst the artifacts themselves. I appreciate I am missing out on some of the history behind them but today, for example, I just wanted to walk around and get some pictures while the majority of our group listened to the guide. I don’t have much background knowledge on the Chan Empire or Vietnamese history generally and I’m not sure anyone can teach me enough to make a difference in just 10 minutes!
The ruins here were really cool and there were so many little buildings you could walk in and out of. Many of the buildings (Elizabeth told me) were built in different styles so one is Indonesian style and one is Indian style. You could definitely tell the difference between the buildings themselves and the items carved into the stones. Also, the stones here are not held together by anything. The stones were heated up so hot they bound together and still hold quite well even now!
Our tour group was quite large but the site was big enough and we were early enough that it was not too overwhelming. It was annoying to see some people clambering over the ruins to get better pictures though, completely oblivious to the signs which clearly stated “no climbing”. I just don’t understand what goes through the thought processes of some people at times like that – I’m sure that have more respect than that normally. Or maybe I’m overestimating them!
As we walked to some of the further sites of the ruins, we looked back across the small river to see many more tour groups just arriving. I was pleased I’d walked around earlier and got my pictures and avoided the scrum which was now taking place.
The other ruins were in a much worse state than those we had seen first but it was very interesting to see them covered in scaffolding and the ongoing restoration work being done on them. Many of them looked like they had only recently been unearthed as the rocks seemed to be sprouting more and more grass the further you went into the site.
The walk back to the car park was another small pathway surrounded by trees. There was hardly anyone else around and it actually felt as remote as it really is. We haven’t had great luck of late with the places we’ve visited. We’ve known them to be tourist traps but you just hope that sometimes you’ll get some peace to explore. Today, we got a bit more of that than usual and it was much appreciated. It made us appreciate the early start we made in Luxor when we had the temple all to ourselves.
After a stop for a drink we got back on the bus to head down to the river. We had two options on the tour – one was bus both ways, without lunch and one was returning by boat with lunch included. The second option was a whole $2 more each so we had splurged a bit on that! Lunch was some kind of mixed vegetable dish served with a bucket-load of rice, served by the boat’s captain. It didn’t look like the most hygienic of lunches but he did give us wet wipes beforehand to clean our hands! It didn’t look very appetizing, either, but the food was actually very good and the pile of rice was a good filler.
The boat ride took just under two hours and included a stop for 10-15 minutes at a little village which sold wooden crafts. We decided to buy some chopsticks and chopstick rests. We had bought some in China and Japan but I wanted to get some cheaper ones we could actually use and not worry about losing or breaking. The woman tried to get over 100,000 Dong from us to start with but I eventually agreed to 80,000 Dong. When I gave her the 100,000 note she gave me 10,000 back and I pointed out her maths error! She just laughed and claimed we’d agreed 90,000. I just put the chopsticks down, took my 100,000 back and started to walk out. She was still trying to bargain but eventually gave me my bag and correct change and quickly snatched the larger note from me. It’s not a lot of money (10,000 VND is about 60cents) but it was so funny the way she was trying to agree a price then bargain back up!
Back in Hoi An, we’d decided to buy a couple of sleeping bags. They are made locally and are made of silk, being more a liner than actually providing warmth. We have decided to ship our large sleeping bags home as we don’t think we’ll be anywhere cold enough to need them but we liked the idea of having something to sleep in should we encounter more dirty sheets! We picked up two of these for under $6 after the seller originally asked for nearly $6 each. I do sometimes feel like we are being tight by bargaining over such small amounts but it is a way of life here and the bargaining is as much fun as actually buying.
After another nice relaxing afternoon, we headed out for dinner. We headed back to the Blue Dragon as we knew the food was good and they had plenty of choice. Plus, we would be helping the local children’s home a bit more!
We had the same as the previous visit but this time we also had some “white rose”, petite steamed dumplings stuffed with shrimp. Even Elizabeth tried these and liked them, the shrimp flavor not being too strong and over-powering. The food was once again excellent and we left quite stuffed.
We had decided to have some more street beers and having had a couple at a bar down the road, we were chatting to a couple taking a cooking class. Part of the class involved making a local dessert which was called Banh it la Gai. We asked the girls at the restaurant what it was but I honestly didn’t really understand them. Regardless, we ordered a helping of them to try. They were sticky rice cakes with a sweet green bean stuffing, all wrapped up in banana leaves. After peeling away the leaves and taking a bite, the flavor of the Banh it was really nice, similar to green tea. It was really nice to try the local food here and we had really enjoyed the culinary delights here.
This was our last night in Hoi An, having spent just one and a half days here. Even though we felt we had seen what we wanted to, we had enjoyed our time here and both thought it would be a good place to come back to, rent a bike and head off into the countryside and coming back to the town for some hearty dinner! This was more like the Vietnam I expected even though there was a plethora of tourists here. They were easy enough to avoid or interact with, depending upon your mood.
Oh well, I hope we’ll come back again but for now we have an early bus ride back to Hue tomorrow before heading on to Saigon.
November 25, 2009
We had an early start this morning getting the bus back to Hue. This bus was one of the overnight sleepers so rather than seats we had beds! They were quite weird to start with but it was quite nice relaxing reclined as the journey went on, listening to my iPod and enjoying the scenery. Thankfully, this driver was much better than the ones we’ve experienced previously, too.
When we arrived in Hue, the bus stopped to pick up some other people and I recognised where we were so we jumped off. After the remote drop-off point in Hoi An, we didn’t want that again so we pushed past the bus attendant trying to stop us and went on our way, being just a couple of minutes from the Sports Hotel where we’d stayed before.
We grabbed some lunch nearby and then spent the afternoon lazing around, listening to the persistent rain falling outside. I managed to sort through a lot of my pictures I’ve taken so far and it was great looking back at all the things we’ve done.
In the evening we went for a curry. It was really good and the portions were very big but I have to say it was probably the most unhygienic place we’ve eaten so far. Compared to some of the places we’ve eaten, this is quite a stretch, too. Many restaurants particularly in Hoi An were family run and the kitchens were part of the home. At one place, I went to the toilet and found in the kitchen one man smoking, another just washing stuff out in a bucket, one woman chopping veggies and then one frying up the food on a tiny stove. But still, none of them gave us a wet towel which was covered in curry and hairs and followed it up with filthy glasses. Here though, you take it as given and we didn’t hesitate in tucking in regardless!