Hue and Hoi An: encounters with the unexpected, the vaguely anticipated and the downright predictable

I write this long-delayed post in an internet cafe in the Mekong delta, next to a tiny child who has spent quite some time watching Minecraft parodies of pop songs. (Update: I’m editing it back home – internet cafes were harder to find in the second half of the trip!) Since the last installment, we’ve travelled hundreds of kilometres along the twisted rollercoaster of fate, the level ride of the first couple of weeks having become somewhat bumpier recently. Here are some of the peaks, troughs, unexpected bends and loop-the-loops, along with their relationship to what we thought was immediately ahead of us:

Hue

Predictions: Based on the guidebook description, the old imperial capital sounded small but pretty, with a few impressive sights. 

What happened: We took a night bus from Son Trach village to Hue, leaving at 5am and arriving at 10am, then staggered through the heat from the bus station to the hotel we’d picked out, which was full. After this inauspicious beginning, we quickly found somewhere to stay and went to explore the town, which was more or less exactly as adertised; the imperial citadel was the main attraction, and we spent a few cheerfully uneventful hours wandering around it in occasional rain.

A chunk of the old citadel

A chunk of the old citadel

The Easy Riders “Top gear tour” 

Predictions: I had very little intention of getting on a motorbike at all before we left, let alone doing an entire day’s travel on one. How things changed… 

What happened: We were urged to take a motorbike tour from Hue to Hoi An with one of the “Easy Riders” organisations, by numerous people who had done (and loved) the same. This somehow ended up becoming actual reality, and we found ourselves perching on a vehicle in which, as someone or other once said to me, “the crumple zones are your legs”. Our epic journey was duly accomplished, and felt safer than expected – our drivers  had listened to our plea to go slowly and, a few herds of goats (and a steamroller) on the road aside, it went smoothly. We didn’t even hit the rainstorm we’d been promised, having left at an ungodly hour of the morning to avoid it.

IMG_0127

From the Hai Van pass

From the Hai Van pass

Hoi An

Predictions: Since everybody we’d asked about Vietnam (as well as the guidebook) said that Hoi An was fantastic, we figured we’d probably quite like it. 

The river at night

The river at night

What happened: Hoi An was fantastic. As advertised, it’s smallish and very pretty, with lanterns galore and lots of lovely yellow houses and temples. We spent a whole week making our way around the attractions at a leisurely pace and somehow spending all of our money (plus a bit) along the way; if you don’t plan on coming back with souvenirs, basically don’t go here.

Here’s the breakdown of the highlights and lowlights…

The food

Predictions: The guidebook described Hoi An as a “foodie mecca” and, although I don’t really count myself as a foodie, or have any personal interest in Mecca, I found this prospect enticing.

What happened: We ate, and ate, and ate. Although the phở  wasn’t as good as in Hue or Hanoi, the local specialities were superb. We gorged ourselves on cau lao, a noodle-and-pork based delight, as well as white rose” a delicious concoction of rice pancakes and a prawn-based filling that has the one disadvantage of being far too small. The agreed favourite foodstuff was a kind of dumpling filled with pork, mushrooms and other things, which came to be known as ‘cloud buns’ because of their incredibly airy texture.

We also did a cooking course, which lasted a full morning, beginning with a market trip. During this we became a little better acquainted with the creatures we’d be eating than my squeamish side was entirely comfortable with, and were offered snails, fresh from the shell (despite my immense dislike of all molluscs, especially ones that are destined to end up in my stomach, I managed to wolf one down with only a slight grimace). During the class itself we made and ate four dishes, resulting in the afternoon being spent mainly in a food coma. It was great fun and good value, with a very chatty, funny teacher – I’d recommend the Vina Ngon restaurant.

The cooking class

The cooking class with Trang

The accommodation

Predictions: We thought (based on past experience) that it would be supremely easy to find somewhere cheap to stay. After an hour or so of trawling the internet, we found a cheap hotel whose tagline was “an atmosphere of being at home…” and decided to book in.

What happened: Sadly, although our dorm-mates were nice, the atmosphere was not one of being at home, unless your home is unfriendly and a bit grubby, with a window looking directly into the bathroom, creaky doors and piped music that starts playing (loudly) at 7am. When we tried to book for another night, we were repeatedly told to go away and come back later, and finally decided we’d go away but not come back later.

An example of Hoi An architecture - lanterns were everywhere, and looked amazing at night.

An example of Hoi An architecture. Lanterns were everywhere, and looked amazing at night.

The finding of a replacement home-from-home proved tricky, and we were ready to give up when, as a last resort, we wandered up to a woman whose house looked a bit hotel-y and said “Hotel?” It wasn’t, but she hopped on her bike to ask a mysterious person a mysterious question for us, and came back to tell us about  “homestay” run by a friend, which was happily within our budget.

On arrival, it became clear that  it was more of a hotel than a homestay, but pleasant enough despite the inaccurate name; the homestay bandwagon is apparently a popular one. We stayed there for the rest of the week, although it went slightly downhill in our estimation later on, when we didn’t buy exclusively from the family tailors and experienced a slightly frosty atmosphere from then on.

The shopping

Predictions: We knew Hoi An was famed for its tailoring, and as there are various items of clothing I’ve been unsuccessfully seeking for some time, this seemed a good opportunity to get them custom-made. 

What happened: We got clothing. And more clothing. And a few other things. I spent approximately four times what I’d been planning to and came away with my 8kg rucksack inflated to 17kg by:

My beautiful lantern in action

My beautiful lantern in action

  • shorts
  • trousers
  • a blazer
  • a trench coat
  • a winter coat
  • a leather jacket
  • an eight-piece teaset
  • two hand-painted scrolls
  • six large lanterns (admittedly, four of these were Laura’s)
  • various other sundries

Yes, you read that right, I went on a budget backpacking holiday and came back with not one but TWO coats, and an actual teaset, which is a lot heavier and more breakable than any reasonable person would have even considered carrying in a rucksack for a week. I despair of myself.

The beach

Predictions: Well, you know… it’s a beach. Sand, sea, relaxation, umbrellas, maybe a coconut or two: nothing eventful, right?

What happened: Oh dear, oh dear. All was well to begin with; An Bang beach is idyllic, conveniently within cycling range, and bordered by a cool-but-not-too-cold sea. We spent some pleasant early mornings enjoying the sun before the day got too hot, and then returning (in my case) sweaty, grumpy and covered with sand – I’m not really a beach person after the first couple of hours.

On our last day, we decided we’d spend one final morning lounging on deckchairs to distract us from the impending release of our degree results and get a tan. This foolproof plan was turned upside down when we arrived at the beach and I realised, to my horror, that my camera was gone. The requisite searching of bags turned up nothing, as did my painful shoeless sprint across the boiling sand to check if I’d left it in my bike basket (I hadn’t), and retracing our tracks back into Hoi An, a 3km cycle that seemed a lot longer when every bit of broken tyre on the road raised and then dashed my increasingly minimal hopes of being reunited with my precious photos.

By the time we got back to town, it was apparent that I wasn’t going to find it, at which point I mourned the loss appropriately by crying and declaring that everything was terrible and that I was the biggest idiot the world had ever seen, while Laura flapped about doing ridiculous things like buying us a nice coffee and reassuring me that it would probably all be fine. Various photos in this post and the next are consequently courtesy of Laura Schack.

These stunning trees were in flower everywhere along the main road, and inadvertantly caused the loss of my camera, due to me becoming moonstruck and leaving it lying about after my attempts to photograph them adequately. The above photo was taken during my mourning period, on Laura's camera.

These stunning trees were in flower everywhere along the main road, and inadvertantly caused the loss of my camera, due to me becoming moonstruck and leaving it lying about after my attempts to photograph them adequately. The above photo was taken during my mourning period, on Laura’s camera.

Eventually, having moved through the seven stages of grief and into the seven stages of resentment and regret, I cheered up a bit, and we had a decent day despite it all, eating more delicious food and going on an overpriced boat trip down the sulphurous river (that might have been a poor choice, actually). The two morals of this story, I suppose, are not to leave your camera in a shoulder bag that anyone can reach into/anything can fall out of, and to back up your damn photos. On an unrelated note, let me know if you have a camera to sell!

Leaving Hoi An: Results day

Predictions: We didn’t dare have any; we were hoping results would come out in the morning of the day they would conceivably first appear, but of course they didn’t. 

What happened: After the emotional turmoil of the camera saga, we were ready to leave Hoi An, well though it had treated us. Due to missing the boat – or rather, the date by which we’d have had to book – for the night train to Ho Chi Minh City, we ended up flying at one day’s notice (remarkably good value, but not cheap, especially when you’re suddenly budgeting for a new camera), which meant that we spent the day checking for results increasingly feverishly in the knowledge that they would almost certainly come out when we were up in the air or, worse, later on in the week.

We hadn’t brought phones, and it turns out that a kindle is not a good internet device, but it served its purpose. After a nail-biting day and evening, we finally got the fateful email announcing the publication of results at 11pm, in the airport, ten minutes before we were due to board. More feverish typing and refreshing followed, but we managed in the nick of time to find out that we both got our desired grades. The joy of this unprecedented fulfilment of all our hopes almost exactly cancelled out my chagrin at losing my camera, leaving me emotionally drained but quietly elated; we celebrated afterwards with a delicious meal in Ho Chi Minh City.

The final installment will emerge in the next week. For now, enjoy bonus these photos of graduation.

Graduation was this weekend: Here's the obligatory hat-throwing photo, courtesy of George O'Shea

Graduation was this weekend: Here’s the obligatory hat-throwing photo, courtesy of George O’Shea

and this was the outcome of too much hard-earned champagne

and this less traditional pose was the outcome of too much hard-earned champagne

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