Saturday, March 29, 2014

Vietnam Part II: Charismatic Hoi An

Sunday 16 March

We had breakfast at the hotel and headed to the airport. As with everything else in HCMC, the airport was a chaotic madhouse. We were greeted by long lines at every turn, but we got through and were on our way to Danang.

We touched down in Danang and were met by our new guide-Hanh. Hanh is so much more friendly and welcoming than He Who Must Not Be Named. Danang, itself, is much more clean and seems to go at a slower pace.

We went for a delicious lunch along the river overlooking the American built ‘Dragon Bridge’.  The food here is similar, but has a slightly different taste. Not that the food was bitter in HCMC, but somehow the food here seemed 'less' bitter. Hard to describe. The flavors were more mild. 

Dragon Bridge in the distance

Hanh took us to a museum filled with stonework by the indigenous Champa people. These people are believed to have descended from India at some point and had a religion that was both Hindu and Buddhist in nature.

Many of the statues were hybrid animals

Mysteriously most of the statues had been beheaded
Hanh kept exclaiming that I looked like a Mexican girl and kept asking Preston and I if we were Mexican moviestars. Haha!!

Clearly a Mexican movie star. Clearly.

From the museum, we drove down to Danang Beach-which was a popular recreation area during the war. It reminded us a bit of Malibu with mountainous hills off to one side. Preston and I dipped our toes in the water and he wished he could surf the waves.

Typhoons are common in this region, as well as seasonal flooding, but that hasn’t stopped the Chinese from building massive resorts along the coast. There is almost no real estate left along the beach.

We rode along the ocean road. Not much could be seen, except the walls of the huge resorts-or the resorts being built.

A tall ‘mountain’ rose from the plain and the guide told us that many people say it looks like a woman sleeping on her side. We (kinda) agreed. 

The Marble Mountain

This mountain is called “The Marble Mountain”. Families have lived at its base for hundreds of years…working and carving the marble into statues. We stopped at a one of these family owned shops and got a brief tour of how they work the marble. It truly was fascinating. Then, of course, they tried to hard sell us something.
Probabllllly not going in our suitcase

Danang is so much less crowded. There are still mopeds and people, but there are more people riding bicycles. Life is just slower.

We are staying in the town of Hoi An-just outside the Old Quarter. Our hotel is awesome. It’s a bit on the older side, but it’s quite charming with intricate woodwork throughout the hotel and room. We have a balcony overlooking a courtyard with a swimming pool.

We enjoyed some happy hour mojitos by the pool and then walked along the streets. I was tempted by MORE Kipling bags. Preston was tempted to have some shoes made for $30. The shoes seemed of good quality and the shopkeepers assured us it would be ‘easy’ to take a measure of his foot and make the shoes overnight. I'm amazed at this skill and sad that it seems lost in America.

We had dinner at a cute little restaurant with tasty Vietnamese food. We only had enough money left over to give the waiters a 6000 dong tip or a 50000 dong tip-about 30 cents or $2.50. Tipping in Vietnam isn’t compulsory, but coming from a country that tips for EVERYTHING, we are having the hardest time with this. Plus, even though we are traveling on a budget, if we can throw someone in a third world country a dollar or so—we do it. So, we left them the $2.50. The waitress was beside herself. She exclaimed “50000 for me?!?!” It was really nice to feel as if we’d made someone’s day for two dollars and fifty cents.

The rest of the night was spent enjoying the cooler air (HCMC had been HOT and steamy) on the balcony overlooking all the Chinese lanterns and listening to the soft music playing.

Monday 17 March (St. Patrick’s Day)

The breakfast at this hotel had things like eggs!! I know that traveling is all about trying the local cuisine and experiencing the culture—and it’s easy to be judgmental while reading someone’s experience and sipping your Starbucks latte (I speak from experience!!), but I can’t tell you how quickly you get sick of the same TYPE of food every. single. day. I feel like in America we have SO much variety. We might have Mexican for dinner on Monday and a French croissant on Tuesday morning, followed by a pizza for lunch and Thai food for dinner. Never do I eat the same kind of food day in and day out. It just gets old. And you crave some of the comforts of home. It’s only been a few days, but I was SO glad to see those eggs.

We were picked up by Hanh for an insanely short ride (we should’ve walked) to the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter of Hoi An is so well preserved that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 The Old Quarter has many influences of Vietnamese, Japanese, and French architecture…but has remained virtually untouched over the last 100 years or so. Hanh explained to us that many of the families living there can’t afford the maintenance on their homes, because they have to adhere to such strict guidelines due to the UNESCO status.

Hanh also told us that there are no grocery stores in Hoi An, because everyone does all their shopping at the local market. She walked us through and I was fascinated by the overwhelming amount of food and goods. It was less dirty than the Chinese Market had been. This market had everything!! Each area specific to its specific item. The animal section was full of all kinds of body parts-hearts, livers, tails-lying on tables waiting to be sold. The fishing area, of course, reeked of fish. It was amazing to see this place in action. Many people offered to pose for photos-at a cost. No thanks ;)

We stopped at a museum, but it was rather unremarkable. Our next stop was a pagoda. The coolest thing here was the enormous incense coils that were hanging from the ceiling. Patrons can pay for a prayer to be written and this incense to be lit. The incense then burns in prayer for around a month.

We visited one of the oldest houses in the quarter. We learned how generations live together in these homes, caring for one another as one generation passes on and another comes into life. We saw the water levels from the seasonal floods. Some were to the ceiling of the small room. People in this area must abandon their homes for the days of flooding.

Flood lines

We saw the Japanese Bridge and Preston looked at more shoes :P

We went to another familiy owned shop where they made products from silk-right from the worms in the shop!! (and, of course, tried to sell us some stuff)

Newly hatched

Before going into cocoon

Makin silk

Boiled alive :-/

We took a boat ride across the river to an island of woodworking families. We were, again, pressured to buy, but were only able to look. We can’t afford to add any weight to our luggage.

Crossing the river, we saw the fishing village in their daily prayer. Once the prayer is finished they release ‘unreal’ (as Hanh said…she means models of boats) boats made of paper. As you can imagine, the river was full of much debris and trash.

Unreal boats

We returned to the Old Quarter for lunch-another 6 or so courses. (We are eating SO much. I think I've gained 10lbs) We enjoyed the Hoi An roses-a local speciality made of rice paper and pork.

We spent the afternoon relaxing at the hotel pool-I was trying to lose the headache I’d gotten.

In the evening, we walked back to the Old Quarter. It was even more charming and beautiful in the evening light. Hoi An is such a contrast from the busy hub-bub of HCMC. Chinese lanterns lined the streets as shop owners still stood along the sidewalk trying to sell their wares. Here is a video I took of our walk (still a bit of chaos)

We had dinner overlooking the river and watched tourists light little candles in boats to send down the river.

Hoi An is our favorite part of Vietnam so far. Charming and distinct. It is well worth a visit.

Tomorrow we head to North Vietnam and Hanoi.