So at the end of our time in northern Vietnam – before we moved south toward Hoi An – there was a massive surprise in store for Asha. Late one night in Hanoi two of our favourite people – Asha’s brother Joel and his lovely girlfriend Lilli – knocked on our hotel room door. Asha – wearing no pants and on the other side of a couple of glasses of wine – was totally stunned, and her natural reaction was to start wailing like Julia Childs before bursting into happy tears.
I was in on the surprise, as Lilli had got in touch we me a few weeks earlier to find out where we would be. Its amazing that the cat didn’t get out of the bag – I was sure Facebook or Asha’s ability to see straight through me would be our undoing. Even the staff at the Hanoi Guest House were all in on it – making sure everything went smoothly. Everytime I walked through the lobby, I would get excited looks and nods from the girls behind the desk.
So Joel and Lilli joined us for a week on the road, as we began the long trip south to Hoi An.
Hanoi to Hue
The overnight train from Hanoi to Hue took a somewhat gruelling 15 hours. One of the perks of travelling in a foursome is being able to have your own room on a sleeper train. Train travel in Vietnam is very popular, so despite booking a week or more before our trip, all of the “tourist class” sleepers where sold out – so we took a local sleeper carriage, still with air-condition and soft(ish) beds.
The excitement of the surprise the night before meant we weren’t very well prepared for our journey down to Hue. In fact, I had booked the tickets and wasn’t even sure how long the journey took.
Things nearly turned bad when we got off the train 3 hours short of our destination, after a local man nodded postively when we asked “Is this Hue?”. Luckily we realised it wasn’t before the carriages started rolling out.
We had to make do with the not-so gourmet offerings of Vietnam rail, as in our excitement we hadn’t remembered to do snack run before boarding. Dinner was a salty rice porridge with some spring onions and ground pork. It looked like the food prisoners eat in war movies, but it actually tasted really good. Breakfast was rice, deep fried sausage, fried green vegetable (not sure exactly what) and a good dollop of fish sauce. We also ate a range of fish-flavoured chips (prawn crackers, lobster chips, crap things) – each of which emitted a foul odour when opened, but didn’t taste too bad.
Once the sun rose, the journey was really beautiful, as the train meandered down the coast through rice paddies and fields full of people working, kids chasing cows and massive flocks of ducks waddling around.
Hue is a tourist destination for a couple of reasons – its the old imperial capital, with the huge grounds of the citadel taking pride of place amongst countless ruins, mausoleum and other historical sites. Hue also sits near the former demilitarised zone between north and south Vietnam, and so had a significant role in the Vietnam war.
We only stayed in Hue for one night – but we managed to walk ourselves ragged visiting the citadel – the imperial palace from where Vietnam was once ruled – and visiting the Dong Ba market, which was a massive, bustling maze of shops and stalls selling everything you can imagine. I get flustered at Coles if I don’t have a shopping list, so I can’t imagine the sheer will power and single minded determination that must be needed to shop at the market. Elbowing your way through crowds, haggling with stern faced Vietnamese shopkeepers, it would be too much for me.
Hue to Hoi An
The next morning we opted for the almost forgotten luxury of booking a private car to take us the 3 hour journey from Hue to Da Nang, and on to the UNESCO town of Hoi An. We made our way along the road to Hoi An – one of the most impressive roads in Vietnam, taking winding bends into the hills that gave us fantastic views over the oceans and coastline below.
Joel “Fat Stacks” Griffith – being the generous guy that he is – shouted us 3 nights in Hoi An’s Orchid Garden Homestay. The place was so much better than anywhere we had stayed since leaving Hendo’s in Bangkok months ago. A cluster of self-contained houses set amongst a beautfil garden surround a pool. It was total luxury, and we loved it. Joel could even jump straight from his bed, through the window and into the pool. Which he did a number of times. Ah, Hoi An.
Hoi An is the most beautifully restored old town we have seen in Vietnam. The old town really is charming, keeping a traditional feel, especially at night with its lantern lit streets. However granting the town UNESCO world heritage status isn’t totally a good thing. For more than a thousand years, the town has been an important trading port, and at one stage it controlled much of the spice trade with Indonesia. In the 1990’s, the town was given UNESCO status to protect the town’s “cultural heritage”, which was seen as having global significance. Doing so has protected the buildings, and the old town is nothing if not charming and romantic, but it has also turned Hoi An into a major tourist destination. So many of the shops that for hundreds of years solds spices, cobbled shoes, and sewed suits, have been bought out by people wanting to cash in on the tourist trade. The town is full to the brim with tailors selling exactly the same clothes, shoe shops selling shoes imported from china, art galleries with the same pictures in all of them, restuarants and bars. Dont get me wrong, there are still artists and artisans plying there trade here, but is seems the UNESCO status has protected the look of the city, while driving away that much lauded “cultural heritage”.
There are a couple of beaches worth visiting a short ride from Hoi An town. Visiting the beach on a Sunday night was amazing – there were thousands of Vietnamese people watching sun go down, and having picnics with family and friends. I have never seen such bustle and activity on a beach before.
Hoi An also has a few specialities when it comes to food – Cao Lao (a dish of thick noodles, pork, fired pork skin, and some kind of broth, mixed with lots of herbs, White Rose – a kind of mini, open dumpling made of steamed rice noodles filled with pork and prawn mince, and fried wontons – deep fried pork wantons, covered in chopped tomato onion and herbs. Asha said its was like Asian Bruschetta. All of these dishes were served to us in the best meal we had in Hoi An – a free banquet poolside at the Orchic Garden Homestay. The quality of the home-cooked local dishes was just so much better than the version we had bought on the street and in restaurants around town.
We spent a day on a snorkelling trip – and for some reason decided that the night before would be perfect for a big night out. Unused to late night escapes, Asha and I couldn’t keep up with Joel and Lilli, who ended the night with Joel singing duets with their motobike taxi driver at a karaoke venue. Sadly Joel and Lilli left for home – via Saigon and Bangkok – and we were left on our own again.
Hoi An to Nha Trang
A couple of days later we caught an awful train from Da Nang (30 minutes from Hoi An) to Nha Trang. The ten hour journey was complete with onboard mice, cockroaches scurrying over our feet, and eggshells everywhere. I’m not sure why Vietnamese people think eggs are the perfect food for long haul travel.
It was worth it though. We arrived in Nha Trang – which is really Vietnam’s Gold Coast – and spent a few days on the beach, before heading to the Dalat in the Central Highlands. Nha Trang was a little reminder of the month we spent sitting on the beaches of Thailand, and a taster of what is to come in a few weeks when we get to Sihanouville in Cambodia.