16.01.2017 - 19.01.2017
Sorry for the weird image numbers below the photos. I'll need to fix those later.
I said goodbye to Da Lat the next day. I took the bus to Na Trang, where I had to transfer to the night bus. I got lucky because my hostel didn't give me a ticket when they booked me the bus, and I didn't really think about it until the guy was asking for tickets when we were ten minutes outside the city. He just gave me another ticket after a brief call to the hostel after I said I didn't have one.
Things got interesting a little into the bus ride when the fog got so thick that you couldn't see anything in front of you. I just decided to get engrossed in the book I was reading on my kindle instead of thinking about the possibility of a head-on collision or veering off a cliff in the fog.
Eventually it subsided and we stopped at a Vietnamese version of a truck stop. And it had a friendly cat! While others went inside to buy drinks and food or wander around, I stalked the cat to take pictures and pet it. Sadly though I've seen a few cats from buses and the train and outside a house since then, it's the last time I've gotten to pet one. I'm going into withdrawal.
After we got to Na Trang, we had some mediocre food at the tourist restaurant next to the bus station, and boarded the night bus around the corner. Very different from American overnight buses. These buses had the narrowest aisles I've ever seen, and seats that were more like beds and had bunk beds. Though I've heard many horror stories of the perils of night buses (breakneck speeds, nonstop honking, karaoke and music blasting, collisions), I didn't have any issues and even got a pretty good night's sleep with the help of my trusty headphones and eye mask and thankfully there was a bathroom too.
We pulled in to Hoi An around 7:30am, but I couldn't check in to my hotel until 11am.
Hoi An is most famous as the place in Vietnam to get clothes like suits and dresses and shoes made for very cheap compared to other places. It used to be there were only a handful of shops you could get clothes made, but with the influx of tourism in recent years the shops are a dime a dozen and some are more reputable then others.
I sat down for a coffee and decided I might have a few things made depending on the price because when in Rome... I wrote down a handful of places that got good recommendations on TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet.
I put in an address near the market into my phone and started walking. The nice thing about being out and about that early was there weren't hordes of tourists out yet and people were just starting the day opening shops and stalls. The light was lovely in the alleyways.
After walking through the bustling morning food market, I came up on the street with the cloth market and along with the rest of Hoi An, numerous taylor cloths shops. I saw one I recognized from my list, Bibi Couture, and popped in. At the spur of the moment I decided to have an ankle length maxi dress and a shorter sleeveless dress made. The young owner was very friendly and helpful. I pointed out the styles I wanted from the mannequin dress displays, then chose which fabric I wanted for each dress. One of the dresses came with pockets free of charge. She took my measurements and told me to come back later in the day for a fitting. I've never had clothes made for me before, but less then $50 for two dresses seemed like a good deal to me.
I left the shop and walked back past the market and tourist shops along the river and back to my hostel to check in.
After I checked in I indulged in some pool time and relaxation.
In the evening I was back for my first fitting. After some chalk markings on the dresses she said to come back the next morning. I ended the day with another walk along the river and a happy hour buy one get one Vietnamese beer at a bar with a river view and a walk around old town Hoi An taking in the French colonial era buildings and the illuminated lanterns hung throughout the area.
The next day after I picked up my dresses, had some more pool time, and went on a photography tour of some of the villages and rice patties outside the city. The tour was run by a French expat photography who had lived in Vietnam for ten years. A group of seven or so of us went by boat to one of the villages. The French photography was fluent in Vietnamese and got us access to a little house where they were making sesame candies and later a house where a woman was making rice crackers. Afterwards we walked to the rice paddies and fields to photograph some farmers.
We ended the day at another village with children playing and saying hello and a few locals looking on as we had some refreshments and boarding the boat. I don't think I would have gone to the rice paddies on my own and I did feel a little intrusive interrupting people's lives to take photos of them, but everyone was very nice and it really helped to have someone with us who spoke Vietnamese.
When I got back I found a delicious open air vegetarian restaurant on a little street away from the tourist area. As I walked through the neighborhood pre-Tet (Tet being Vietnamese New Year) celebrations were in full swing with parties feasts and karaoke at some of the nearby restaurants.
I had a vegetarian version of the famous Hoi An thin savory pancake dish banh xeo and cao lau, a noodle dish found only in Hoi An.
After I left the restaurant I was walking down the street and stopped for a moment to look at my phone. Out of the corner of my eye I saw something moving towards me and though it might be a cat or small dog, then I gave it my full attention. It turned out to be the biggest rat I've ever seen ran right between my legs and then barreled down the street.
My last day in Hoi An I took a group tour to visit the My Son ruins of the Cham empire. Unfortunately the ruins were in remarkable good condition for hundreds of years (dating back to between 4th and 13th century), but during the Vietnam war the Vietcong were using them as a hiding spot and the Americans bombed the hell out of them.
Today the ruins are a combination of a small amount of the original ruins and some that the Vietnamese tried to rebuild with varying success. Researchers still don't know what the Cham used to get the bricks to fit together. There was no mortar or glue. Before the war the structures were in amazing condition and didn't have moss or other elements growing on them whereas the rebuilt restored parts are less then ten years old and the new bricks don't hold up to the elements well.
The tour guide said some of the attempted restorations actually made things worse and led to damaging the original structures and they should have just left the ruins as they were. He pointed out an area where new bricks had collapsed in a restoration attempt. The tour guide I had was very animated and loved to tell bad jokes. At one point setting humor aside, he told the story of how his father was actually one of the Vietcong hiding at My Song. After the war we went back to his wife and the tour guide was born. It was interesting to meet a direct descendent of a Vietcong fighter. It's easy to just think of the Vietcong as faceless bad guys and not think about how they had families too.
Later in the day I decided to seek out the Japanese Bridge that was in all the guidebooks. The bridge is actually rebuilt because the French flattened it when they were in power. After walking across the bridge, I came across a part of old Hoi An I somehow hadn't stumbled upon the rest of my trip. The bridge to get to the other side of the river was brimming with photo opportunities. Boats with tourists and boats with Vietnamese people in traditional dress having their photos taken by photographers (maybe newly married couples, Hoi An is the honeymoon capital of Vietnam). Street vendors selling everything from balloons to lanterns with candles in them to float on the river to popup cards with scenes of Vietnam. A mix of old Vietnamese boaters and young Vietnamese with cellphones.
I spent some time taking photos on the bridge and then crossed to the river bank I hadn't been to on the other side. There was a photo display along the river bank with some wonderful prints of a well known Vietnamese photography who had traveled all over Vietnam to photograph people. I walked along the river gawking at the beauty of the architecture and the old boats and more lanterns.
This side of the river had a more laid back vibe and I wish I had discovered it earlier in the trip. This side of Hoi An also had incessant hawkers too though. Every time I stopped to compose a shot I was inundated by offers or boat rides, lanterns for sale, etc. There was one particular older lady with the lanterns who would incessantly try and get me to buy them every time I stopped to take a photo and declining didn't work. I had to walk away or she wouldn't stop and she followed me for awhile, went on to someone else, and then came back. I know the street hawkers are just trying to make a living and it comes from a place of privilege to compalin about the inconvenience while taking photos with my fancy camera, but it did get grating at times.
I decided to grab a beer at an open air bar with a great view of the river so I could try and take some shots of the lanterns after dark. I can see why some refer to Hoi An as the Venice of Vietnam. Being on that side of the river did remind me in some ways of Venice. After getting some quick night shots I gave up because I didn't have time to set up the shots before yet another vendor approached trying to get me to buy something.
I walked around old town one last time and then went to of all places a "sports bar" because I had read they had some craft beer from a brewery in Ho Chi Minh City and I was going through craft beer withdrawal. Not so shockingly the pizza I had was outrageously expensive, but I was too hungry to wait and go somewhere else. It had pumpkin and some other veggies, but was still bland. It was nice to have some beer that didn't taste like PBR or High Life though.
The next morning I was up bright and early to go to Danang where I caught the train to Hue.