The lanterns of Hoi An

CURRENT LOCATION: Hue, Vietnam

Zev:

While in Nha Trang we decided to wander to the far end of the beach to have a traditional Vietnamese BBQ for dinner. This was a grill your own food experience by way of a small clay charcoal BBQ that was placed at the head of our table. The restaurants was al fresco which was entirely necessary, as even with the "fresh air" and about 100 fans going, the entire place was filled with BBQ smoke. Luckily, it was so busy we got crammed right at the far, back corner of the restaurant so the smoke wasn't so bad. They brought us plates of "vegetables" (which included tomato, pineapple, tofu, okra, potato, onion and banana), a plate each of raw beef and chicken for us to cook up. Everything was marinated in the same sauce, which was definitely tasty! Getting to cook dinner was a really welcome experience for us as we have eaten exclusively at restaurants for the last 7 weeks - every meal has been cooked for us. Frankly, I miss cooking!I think Sam recognised the look of determination on my face and she left the cooking to me.

 Nha Trang, Vietnam
 Nha Trang, Vietnam

The next day we woke up at 4am to catch our train to Danang at 5am. We walked in the abandoned streets of Nha Trang about 600m to the train station. It was strange to see the streets so quiet. They even turn off most of the street lights at this hour. At the train station we got our staple white-people-tourist-travelling-somewhere-in-SE Asia snack kit, which includes 7-Up, Pringles, Snickers bars and Mentos, and boarded our train. Once again we were shafted by getting the only seat in the carriage that shares leg room with people across from you, so basically that means, well, you have none. Anyways, the seats were really comfortable and reclined enough to have a snooze. So we obliged, it was 5am after all. Zzzzzzzzz.

At 6.00am it was time to was wake up. The lights all came on. One of the seemingly thousands of train workers came through and opened all the curtains. The food vendors came charging through the aisles smashing their cart in to every second passenger, and yelling information about their wares. The 2 ceiling-mounted TVs were turned on to the Vietnamese karaoke channel and the speakers set to full volume. As I said, it was definitely time to wake up. Other than this, the train was a really nice way to travel after a countless difficult bus rides. It's smooth. It's fast. Best of all, you can stand up and stretch your legs whenever you need. Which, when you have no leg room, can be quite often.

The 9 hour journey through rice paddies, mountains and with the ocean always to our right was stunning. It's such a beautiful, green and picturesque country. All of the fields were dotted with farmers and water buffalo working hard to contribute to one of the world's largest producers of rice.

Our homestay sent a driver to pick us up on Danang where the train arrived and take us the 40km to Hoi An. When we arrived in Hoi An we decided to walk into the ancient town for a drink and dinner. We were staying just outside the centre, on Can Nam island. Our homestay was really nice and the owner and his family were super friendly! Hoi An ancient town is stunning! The river cuts through, filled with fishing boats and tourist boats, and as the sun sets it becomes increasingly full of floating lanterns. The streets are packed with restaurants, bars, tailors, local markets and tea houses. The centre of ancient town itself is a pedestrian and bicycle only area, so no cars or motorbikes! It's a lovely change from the rest of the cities we've been in. Finally some respite from the noise and traffic, and most importantly, from constantly being harassed about where we're going and how we're getting there. We found a decent looking restaurant and stopped in for a drink - and based on the high price of food, we decided to carry on exploring. We found a more acceptably priced restaurant and their menu had a "traditional food of Hoi An" page - which was perfect as I love ordering the local specialties. Sam ordered the fried rice and perhaps just out of curiosity I ordered "hand crabs with French potatoes" - this turned out to be crab hands with chips... Yes, crab hands. Which I guess you would traditionally call claws. Anywho, it was certainly entertaining! It didn't matter that dinner was a bit of dud, because we were completely smitten with the beauty of Hoi An at night! While 'enjoying' our meal at 8.15pm, the whole town switched off their lights to celebrate earth hour. Suddenly, all the restaurants were lit with candles (largely due to the earth hour 'police' coming round and making people switch their lights off), adding to the beauty of the town. After dinner, we wandered a while in the darkness, soaking up the atmosphere.

 Hoi An, Vietnam
 Hoi An, Vietnam

The next day we decided to venture to the Aussie-owned sports bar in town to support our cricket boys in black for the World Cup final vs Australia. Needless to say we, as kiwis, were well in the minority. In the first innings, a friend of Sam's, Anna, from nursing school and her partner, Hamish joined us for some delicious burgers, pizza and a bit of cringing.... They had stuff to do so we were on our own for the second innings. We met a really nice, if not a bit smug Australian who didn't rub it in too much and even bought us a beer. Turns out he was somehow high up in the chain of command for the NZ winery Matua. He was cool and had a great sense of humour! Despite the scoreline, we were super proud of our boys to get as far as they did! Well done those Black Caps!

We did a bit more research into dinner for that night and it paid off. We had a magnificent Vietnamese meal in a restaurant completely lit by lanterns. All up it cost us around $20 for a three course meal and drinks! Wowee!

The following day we had arranged through our homestay to go on a tour of the ruins of My Son (pronounced: Me Soon). We didn't really know what to expect other than that we were getting picked up at 8.30am and dropped in town at 2.30pm, and there was a boat somewhere along the way, but it was recommended by Mr Tuan (our host) at our homestay! We were collected in a minivan with few others in it, and we drove around to a bunch of hotels and accommodations to pick up other guests for about 20 minutes and it soon became apparent that this tour was rather big. This was confirmed when we parked up behind a massive tour bus, with an already over-full minibus. The tour guide Lee told everyone except for us and another Kiwi couple to go get on the tour bus. Which too, was completely full! We made one more stop to pick up four more guests and we were on our way! When we arrived at the ruins Lee reminded us (us was about 55-60 tourists) about 30 times that we were to follow him through the ruins, where we'd be going, and that we needed to be "back at the bus at 11.55am. That's one, one, five, five. 11.55am. Yes, back here at one, one, five, five" - holding up the correct amount fingers as he spoke. Lee only got crazier and crazier. He repeated everything he said at least 5 times. His English was relatively good, but he has a very thick accent. This was just hilarious and about 5 minutes into the tour, half the group decided to ignore his instructions and go do their own thing. After all, they knew to be back at the bus at 11:55.... But we stayed with Lee, our 45 year old, chain-smoking Vietnamese tour guide! He was so funny! He obviously took a liking to a young Asian woman in the group wearing a slightly revealing bright red dress. He starting referring her to as his "girlfriend". Pretty sure it was borderline sexual harassment... (Addit from Sam: nothing borderline about it. I did not like Lee). However, the young woman was playing along. Super awkward! Despite all this, we learned a lot about the history of the ruins and symbolism as it related to the Hindu religion. The tour had a wonderful end. We were all driven to a boat and cruised down the river while we were served a tasty vegetarian lunch.

 So excited to be at My Son!

So excited to be at My Son!

That afternoon we visited one of the hundreds of tailors in town. Sam picked out some material and patterns for a dress and some shorts which she was going to have custom made for her. Hoi An is famous for their tailoring. The women who worked in this shop were great and super efficient. Within 24 hours Sam was to have 2 tailor-made additions to her wardrobe! Awesome! For dinner, we went to a suggested restaurant called Cargo. Wow. This was one of the best meals we have had on our whole trip. We had deep fried spring rolls wrapped in fresh herbs, spicy sausage on skewers, braised pork ribs and I ordered the whole fried fish with tamarind sauce! Everything was amazing! We didn't let the fact that we both felt sick stop us from getting dessert - Sam had the tiramisu and I ordered the profiteroles with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. Mmmmmmmmm.

Given the success of our My Son tour, we decided to do a second tour of the fishing village and waterways. This was an eco-tour similar to the one we did in Battambang. This tour group was significantly smaller than the day before, and the other guests were lovely! An English guy and his Dutch wife, their two children (who all live in Brunei), and her dutch parents, and two British mothers with their combined 3 children (but they were living in Dubai). This tour was so fantastic. The company is called Jack Trans Eco tours. All of the tour guides were enthusiastic and friendly! We got to meet a water buffalo - I even got to ride on it! We cruised on the river, met the local fisherman on their small, wooden fishing boat, rode in a small 4 person basket boat through the water coconut forest while our guide made us flax jewellery and art, had a go at throwing a 4kg fishing net, pulled in a massive 700kg fishing net using the bamboo/wood foot crank, ate a delicious lunch on the boat, and perhaps most the  memorable was chatting to Nga, our young female tour guide about her grandfather who was in the Viet Cong during the war. She said that he would only ever talk about the war when he was drunk, so locals would give him drinks to hear his stories. She talked about how she grew up being taught a one-sided view of the war, but being in the tourism industry she has learned a whole new side from the tourists (particularly the Americans). As a young child she genuinely hated Americans. But now, she is aware that so many Americans hated the war, and protested, and fought to get the troops out of Vietnam. She says this is never mentioned, and she would have never learnt about the protests if she hadn't heard about it from those who were involved, or whose parents were involved. She was extremely genuine and honest about this. It was a very moving moment. After the tour we said goodbye to all our new friends (who even offered us a place to stay in Brunei!), and went to pick up Sam's tailoring. They looked great and Sam was very pleased!

 Hoi An, Vietnam

Given our lavish and frankly expensive couple of days we decided to do dinner on the cheap and get the local noodle soup called Cau Lao for dinner! We stopped in a small family restaurant because of the young boy who convinced us that their Cau Lao was "same same, but better!" For the crazy price of $4.00 we both ate dinner and had a drink. After dinner we went to tea house called Reaching Out. This establishment was started by a deaf man with a vision to empower and employ people with disabilities. All of the staff were deaf or mute. They encourage whispering and quiet in the tea house, and it is decorated to create a very zen atmosphere. We each had some Oolong tea and reflected on our experiences. A very peaceful way to end a busy day!

 Local fisherman, Hoi An

Local fisherman, Hoi An

Our second to last day in Hoi An we dedicated to doing a much awaited cooking class! We had to cancel the last cooking class because I got sick, so we were determined to make this one count! It started with a trip to bustling market in the centre of ancient town to gather all the goods for the day of cooking. This was interesting, although the cramped nature of the market made it difficult to stay together in our group of 11, let alone hear what our guide was saying. Regardless, it was interesting to venture through the market with confidence that comes with having a Vietnamese speaking guide. On the menu for the day were four items: Ban Xeo (traditional pancake using rice milk and turmeric), beef noodle salad, fresh spring rolls, and Pho Bo (beef noodle soup). They had a team of people making sure the day ran quickly and smoothly. This was perhaps in their best interest, but it definitely took away from the cooking experience a bit. Everything was already, peeled, chopped and put into separate containers. There was not much cooking to be done, but it was still an enjoyable day with good food! That night we met up with some of our friends from Da Lat for dinner. It was really great to catch up and get to know these guys even better!

 Local markets, Hoi An

Local markets, Hoi An

 Making rice milk, Hoi An

Making rice milk, Hoi An

 Heading out on the fishing boat, Hoi An

Heading out on the fishing boat, Hoi An

 Our beautiful spring rolls, Hoi An

Our beautiful spring rolls, Hoi An

The next day was our last in Hoi An, and we planned to wander the ancient town, and visit some of the preserved buildings in the area. After wandering in to town to get some brunch (including a salted caramel cronut for Sam!), I started to feel a little sick, so we headed back to the accommodation in a cab. It wasn't serious, I just felt a bit off, so we thought we'd rest for a bit and head out later in the afternoon when it wasn't so hot. Sadly, I didn't improve, so Sam headed out for dinner without me. I felt worse as the night wore on, and around midnight, I felt the worst. Until I experienced some of the most powerful projectile vomit of my life. Then I felt better. Much better.

When I woke up in the morning, I still felt pretty lethargic, but other than that, it was like I was never sick. Strange! Our homestay was kind enough to cook us an early breakfast, and we were picked up by the bus company at 7.15am. Another sleeper bus ride (only 4 hours this time) took us through some spectacular scenery to Hue. Luckily, our hotel was walking distance from the bus station. Again, we were greeted with a cold drink, and cold towels. And Sam is ecstatic, because our hotel has a bath!

More on our adventures in Hue in the next post!!

Lots of love,
Z & S
xxx

(Original post date: 5th April 2015)