Hoi Ann is, I think one of the nicest, if not THE nicest, laid back place I have ever stayed. Our accommodation wasn't, budget choices here aren't that great, but this even didn't detract from how much we loved our stay here.
I already had fallen in love with Vietnam in Hanoi and Hoi An pretty much sealed the deal. We chickened out of the train in the end and by-passed one of our planned stops, Hue, and flew Vietnam Airlines down to Da Nang, a resort in itself and 40 mins from Hoi An. The internal flights were crazy cheap, Vietnam Airlines were great and we arrived in the brand spanking new airport of Da Nang with the sun shining and everything sparkling.
As we drove from Da Nang we saw some interesting things immediately. The traffic was a lot quieter for one - a totally different kettle of fish.
On the outskirts of the city, were some large buildings which we wondered if were hotels or Casinos - turns out they were designed just for weddings. They were really big and fancy so the idea being that the reception type thing can be held there and the pictures will look great outside these grand buildings. I was really curious as they kind of stood in these not particularly impressive grounds, set back from the main road. But I have come to learn that the Vietnamese are quite wedding obsessed and bride spotting is one of my favourite pastimes.
Another architectural curiosity was the stadium build to look like a UFO - who knows why - and it really did.
The next thing to notice was how development has started in this area BIG TIME!!! Huge resorts have bought up all the coastal land and if there's not a resort there already, they have big board/wall up along the length of them so as you drive, you can't see the sea but you can see their logo and promises of luxury and pro golfer designed golf courses - just what the world needs more freakin golf courses! It's sad but I guess that's life, I just wish planning was a little stricter - not that there's older buildings to save but maybe just limit the size of places and keep them lower rise. These huge resorts are like their own islands and that's what they want - to trap the customer in there.
Anyway, we reached Hoi An and it didn't look especially interesting as we checked in to our rough and ready hotel (with a mini pool in the lobby - why? In our time there - not one person ever went near it!). Our room was small and pokey after our luxurious one in Hanoi but it did the job so no problem there. Mark as usual was totally unimpressed and asking why I'd brought him there as he looked out of the balcony at, well a road and an odd, big disco building opposite us.
Once we headed into town and hit the riverfront, he realised why as it was just simply gorgeous. The old town is made up of a grid of mainly wooden shop house lined roads - not pokey alleyways but fair sized and with little traffic (and in the evenings with no traffic). Luckily the local government, a long time ago, slapped on laws to protect this - thank god! Lots more bikes than mopeds and cars. The river which comes in from the sea not far away means lots of interesting boats to watch and a lovely cooling breeze. They pipe low key/quiet classical music through the streets which sounds awful but isn't.
As the lights go down there are lanterns lit and put onto the river to float away. On the full moon - the whole river front switched it's lights off and used only candles and absolutely loads of lanterns are put on the river. Was just lovely.
There are a couple of food specialities in Hoi An which Mark and I became smitten with. Cau Lau which was thick noodles with pork slices, greens (locally grown amazing tasting leaves), crispy pork (hence Mark's adoration) and a sweetish sauce lightly coating the noodles. White Rose was my obsession. This was a pork/shrimp paste centre in a rice dumpling type encasing which is steamed. Kind of like a dumpling/dim sum and then sweet dried onion sprinkled on top. I had White Rose everyday and even had it 3 times in one day. I am still totally obsessed with it and guttingly have not found it anywhere outside of Hoi An. The other thing you could have is their version of won tan - a huge one covered in a tomatoey sauce. This was nice but sometimes the sauce was a bit sweet for my liking. I could have eaten them more happily without the sauce. There is also something divine which is shrimp paste (which I think is mixed with pork mince - a pairing which seems quite common) and wrapped around sugar cane. Our 2nd day we discovered this food by trying a 4 course taster menu which is available at a lot of the restaurants. This is always a great idea to try new things and is what started off our obsession.
There was also a place we went to which was not very Vietnamese but they did great 'proper' wine and we shared a cheese board - you've no idea how much I enjoyed that, I nearly fainted with the joy. Blue cheese and brie - oh i hadn't had that in so long!
Two restaurants I would definitely recommend if ever in the area, would be Wan Lun, a street or two back from the river - great classic looking restaurant and great food (with all the above done very well). Then there is the Sunshine cafe which is 15 minutes or so out of town, very close to where we were staying. The food was fair bit cheaper than in town (where it wasn't expensive anyhow) but was also really tasty and the woman who runs it is so lovely and friendly - a real sweetheart.
The weather was beautiful. Blue skies and sunny nearly all the time. This was a really big deal for us. Despite being away for so many months now we have had a heck a lot of rain. Even though it's been hot, the rain has scuppered so many places, this was such a treat.
Something huge in the town is also tailors. This isn't just like the tailors you see in all the tourist towns in Thailand with 'Armani' signs outside (we've never understood this - why mention brands when you're making something from scratch) These were places with really lovely examples proudly on display. I began to wish we were going home to the cold just so I could have one of the gorgeous coat designs that I'd seen. We hadn't intended on getting any clothes made but after a couple of days I realised that it might be a good idea. We both needed trousers and shopping in Thailand in Western sizes and *coughs* for Mark and I's size was near impossible. So we took the plunge after I'd looked a few recommendations. We didn't go to the cheapest place but it was pretty good for the money. They just had catalogs that you could look through and pick designs., then you flicked through swatches to pick the material. I decided to get a top made too and just kind of discussed an idea of what I might like with them and then got to pick the fabric. We then got measured, which was a little interesting and public but hey ho. Next day we went for a fitting, which was pretty much deciding where you wanted tighter or looser or shorter etc, then you picked up later that day. Was really great and I wished I done this sooner - being so blinkin' short, trousers are a pain for me. Definitely something will try again in the future. Will be interesting to see how long the stuff lasts but seems really good quality. Mark's had a few problems - his are already too big for him which we reckon might be because it was so hot when we tried things on - things seemed tighter than they were, but I'm good at hand sewing so I can do my little house wifey bit there.
Now let me tell you about on of the things that is very funny about the restaurants here. A lot of them are converted shop house style and old fashioned and work the way they always have. The frontages are often dark wood and shady - cosy feeling while being open and cool. But the toilets on many of these, not just the cheap ones - many of the more expensive river front ones are out the back in the family residence. This means that you're often bypass an old relative asleep on a bed as you head out to the toilet which will indeed be their 'bathroom' with all their paraphernalia and generally not very modern to say the least. It's quite startling the first time you do it but then it's just quite amusing and you just get used to it. Then it's just amusing watching the faces of people who are doing it for the first time.
My favourite example of this was at a restaurant which has an amazing reputation for the chef, Mr Kim, who runs it is a bit of a character. You turn up and you have a choice of taster menus - meat, fish or vegetable - he decides what's to cook. And he is quite a character indeed. He plays old french folky/jazz music which was actually amazingly cool. He has some odd things on the wall and a huge old tv, which had the tennis on when we were there. The food was great - there was one course which was a disaster for us as it was just a type of fish that I really hate and it was massive so Mark had to wolf much of it down on his own. Before desert, I popped upstairs to the floor above, which has a balcony which is the prime spot for people to eat with a view over the river. There was a posh french couple up there who'd clearly booked based on the place's reputation. At the back end was the bathroom. The door was locked so I walked back to near the stairs to wait and the waiter seemed surprised and went and knocked on the door and said something to whoever was in there. He then asked me to wait just a minute so I moved nearer the toilet only to be met with Mr Kim in a towel - I'd interrupted him having a shower!! This is not hidden from anyone eating on that floor let me add. I thought it was hilarious and having seen a po-faced couple come down from upstairs earlier I guess this style bathroom (it was def rough and ready in there with shower cap hanging on side and half used toothpaste lying around) was not to their taste with their evening meal. Unfortunately I didn't hang around long enough to try to read the faces of the posh French customers. I guess you can't assume, just because a place has a good reputation or is written up by travel writers, that it means that it is what you would expect as 'normal' back home. In reality, it is I guess the practicality of the situation. They only have the one bathroom. These are old buildings - not easy do work on and if you're going to spend money on things - it's front of house you're going to make look attractive.
It's also quite handy I find if the place is a bit larger and you're not share where to go, to have an old nana or grandpa out there to show you the way
Mind you, the toilet on this boat doesn't look too tempting either...
We'd been gotten by the 'let me be your friend' tactic in Hanoi so didn't want to do it again here. To be fair there was very little of it, but there was one incident which I think was a reflection on how much I have changed since coming away. I was walking quite far ahead of Mark for some reason and a youngish guy on a bike kind of slowed up next to me and said something like 'hi, where are you from' - I just knew where this was going - this is the classic, open ended convo started and I was hot and just couldn't be bothered and so without thinking I just bluntly said 'I don't need a chat thank you'. Now he could have been not wanting something from me but he looked a little stunned and just cycled off so successful I thought. The thing is, for anyone who knows me, I am such a wimp with people normally. I don't complain in restaurants. My mother drummed politeness into me and I will always apologise to the person who's barged into me. Bloody English politeness! The idea of not replying to someone who talks to you was unimaginable. That doesn't work in South East Asia - or anywhere someone want to sell something to you frankly - as they'll start with a leading question and you feel it's just too rude not to answer. In Thailand we definitely toughened up and generally just reply No Thank You - to everything. It's also the two words I now make sure I learn in new languages. That sounds awful I know and it's not like you're being swarmed with hassle - people just approach you and rather than ignore them, which I still can't do as feels too rude, I find a 'No Thanks' does the job ( even if it has to be said 5 or 6 times). But this was a whole new level of honesty that I didn't expect from myself and I was really quite surprised at myself (as was Mark) and if I'm honest a little proud. I didn't beat around the bush. I knew what he was going to do. He knew what he was going to do. I politely firmly just cut this off at the pass. Get me!!!
Now this became Mark's utter obsession - how cheap he could find the beer and how it was cheaper than water. This amazed him, like a child and a big lollipop. On average, even in great positions on the riverfront we were drinking draft beer that was about 12p (19c US) and we saw it for even cheaper elsewhere. Luckily it wasn't very strong and unusually for me, I really liked it, so we did spend a lot of time on the waterfront supping our (CHEAP!) beer watching the world go by. Did I mention it was really cheap?
Mark's street game
Half way between pin the tail on the donkey and piñata hitting. There was something - a coconut I think, hanging in the air a few metres ahead of him. He could go up to it once to work out the steps and the height. Then he was blindfolded and had to go up to where he thought it was and hit it with a stick. Simple but very funny to watch.
We saw this guy about town a lot. He just looked like a real cool dude.
Not sure what this was, but it's my favourite mis-spelling/odd translation to date.
We've seen this ever since we have come to south east asia and as so many public toilets are 'squat' toilets - i.e a holes in the ground - it makes sense this is a position one should familarise one's self with! To be fair, we'd encountered very few on our travels. But you also see people sat like this and just eating or hanging out outside their shops. We have decided we are going to get our bodies better acquainted with this sitting style. We have found that the getting up is the worst bit We've a long way to go!
This is Marks favourite thing ever. It is strong, knock your socks off, coffee which drips (slowly!) through a filter into a cup which has sweet milk (think evaporated milk/carnation type thing) - then you mix it up at the end. Heart attack in a cup I think.
They are soooo cheap in Vietnam. We almost felt like starting again just because they were so crazy. This is why you'd often see them in the offerings along with the usual food and incense.
Amazing school buildings
All the nurseries and schools I have seen are just adorable.
Cool ladies trousers
The ladies in Vietnam, the older ones in particular, I have found to have a certain kind of simple glamour. They often have outfits of matching shirt and trousers in a lively pattern and this just looks really cool and glam (although sometimes it can look like PJs). Match this with the hat and I'd never tire of looking at these lady's attire.
Gatecrashing a show
On the first or second night, I can't remember which, after we'd walked back from town we heard some really loud music going on somewhere and there was also flood lights flitting around the sky. So we decided to follow this and investigate. I was a bit nervous to be honest as it was clear this was a locals only thing but Mark had had a few so he had plenty of enthusiasm and bravado. We went in a side entrance of this huge outdoor stage/arena place. There were ticket stubs thrown all over the floor as we passed the first entrance so not sure if we were gatecrashing or not but no-one seemed to mind.
We are not sure what it was but I think it was local people performing but wow what a place to perform - the acoustics were insane and it was incredibly loud. There was some teens doing a pretty impressive dance routine and then some more singing. We were never entirely sure what was going on but I think it may have had something to do with celebrating the anniversary of independence. There was a sorry ending to the tale however, upon getting home and me doing some over enthusiastic boyband/glee style dancing in our room, I ripped my favourite top, pretty much in half. Hardcore eh?
Our guesthouse sucked
But other than that Hoi An is just too wonderful to find fault with!