Hoi An

A full bus, bar two seats at opposite ends of the bus pulled up to pick us to for Hoi An. I sat at the back between a group of Spanish people on a 10 day holiday. Al was at the front next to a local girl from Hoi An. It was a hot and sticky ride with the air conditioning working only slightly. Certainly wasn’t on full blast like we had got used to in South America. The Spanish crowd were friendly and fascinated that we had been on the road for so long. They had many questions for me, often ones I was getting used to asking. At Dalat the bus emptied somewhat and with another hour until Hoi An it was less uncomfortable.

On arrival, I felt truly exhausted not only by the humidity and heat, but also by the questioning that must have been going on for a couple of hours! I knew they meant well but I realised how difficult it is keep up the answers to, ‘what is your favourite county?’, ‘how can you afford it?’, ‘what will you do when you get back to the UK?’. The latter question being the hardest to answer with our ticket home creeping steadily towards us. Something I don’t want to be reminded of every time I talk about our travels!

We were dumped on the side of a street a little way out of town by our grumpy bus driver. The bus stopped directly in front of a backpackers hostel with staff ready to pounce on their new prey. We quickly moved away from them into town. Soon a lady offered us a room near the old market. I went up to check out the room and left Al with the bags downstairs. I managed to barter down to the more reasonable US$8 per room. On the top floor we had a great view of the old market streets below from a shared terrace. It was not the best room for the money, but it would suffice for a few nights. Next door to our room was a young German girl travelling on her own, Marlin.  We suggested she came for a beer with us. It was early evening and definately time!

Venturing out towards the waterfront we walked through a sheltered street market. Having to duck and dive through the low canvas shaded street we resurfaced on the waterfront. It was lined with restaurants and bars which were very busy with Vietnamese and foreign tourists alike. At each restaurant the waitresses would try and accost us and persuade us with an almost identical menu to the last. Some sold Bia Hoi (fresh brewed lightweight beer) for 4000 dong (20p). We stopped in one and ended up eating Vietnamese pancakes, Cau Lau (a local noodle soup dish).

The waterfront was beautifully lit up with sculptures of fish, dragons and other mythical creatures floating on the surface. It felt very busy with Vietnamese and we soon discovered that it was a full moon (not that we could see past the hazey sky). A night market filled with lanterns and other knick knacks was a fun place to mooch around, past this it was a bit calmer and I introduced Marlin to sugarcane juice (Nuoc Mia). Freshly squeezed and served with ice, just like in India. It is the perfect refreshing sugar drink.

Back on the waterfront there were street food vendors all serving Cau Lau. Izzy from Fiji had recommended this Cau Lau, so we indulged in the cheap dish (15dong). It was delicious! Within minutes of arriving here we bumped into a group of backpackers we had shared a few beers with in Hanoi. They had done the usual route, Halong Bay, 1 day in Hue, now in Hoi An and then off to Na Trang. They were nice enough, but they didn’t seem to share the same zest of adventure as us and understand that they were spending their whole time with western backpackers in backpacker hostels…not really getting ‘down and dirty’ with it shall we say. They we all staying in a hostel dorm with a pool and free drinks in the evening for US$10. At such a good price it was almost tempting but we didn’t want the drunken snoring dorm experience with a load of drink backpackers. We decided to stay where we were.

Our first full day in Hoi An we wondered around the town. With some cobbled small streets and the waterfront cafes it had everything to make it a nice place to hang out. However it was over run with tailor shops. They were clearly geared for the through traffic of travellers. Holidaymakers and backpackers alike. The old town felt like it had lost it’s charm as a fishing village and was now purely there for tourism, being dubbed as the one of the cheapest place to buy tailored clothes in Vietnam (according to Lonely Planet readers anyway).

We ended up at the same restaurant on the waterfront for lunch. It seemed to be one of the better value places for lunch. We discussed what we wanted to do over the next few days and decided to rent a bike out the following day. It had been a great way to explore the surrounding area of Hue, so why not so the same for Hoi An. We arranged to rent a bike from a guy selling juice in front of the restaurant for 100000 dong (US$5). It was the going rate and he wouldn’t budge on the price. Fine, we thought it wasn’t a bad price. At midday it was so hot in Hoi An it was difficult to do much, so we enjoyed a few cold Bia Hoi’s and watched the world go by. A perfectly chilled afternoon.

Later we went to find a cheap internet cafe. It was difficult. 9000dong/hr near the waterfront was expensive and clearly a price from the western travellers. With the aim to investigate what we should visit around Hoi An and where we should head to after Hoi An, we ended up in a travel agent. This was a fruitful decision. The girl spoke OK English and recommended us some places in Vietnam that were less touristy. We were desperate to get off the beaten track asap! Armed with scribbles on a piece of paper and directions for a cheaper internet cafe we went on our way. To the internet cafe we ended up passing a lady who offered us motorbike rental 20000dong (US$1) cheaper than what we had arranged. We snapped up her offer agreeing to meet her at 8am the following day.

Down a little winding path through a local living area we found the internet cafe. It was a welcome diversion from the main tourist area. After a couple of hours research with shared our findings over a beer in a local tucked away place. The locals arriving all wore a surprised look on their faces when they saw us sitting there. Almost to say,’Ah! A tourist, how did they find us?” We made a decision to book a ticket to Qui Nhon for the day after renting the bike so we headed back to the travel agent and bought 2 tickets. Not knowing our hotel name we promised to go back the following day with it.

Setting off fairly early we found our motorbike lady waiting for us at 8:30am. We exchanged money for helmets, keys and a bike. Off we went, first getting petrol (2 liters for 40000dong), second stop coffee. In a straight road out of town we were at An Bang beach within 15mins. It was cleaner than Thanh An and more beautiful.

We were one of the only people on the beach, it was a pleasant start to the day. We bought 1 coffee between 2 of us (they were double the price to local cafes) and Al enjoyed a morning swim. I was desperate to join him, but with my Hanoi tattoo burn still seeping and raw I decided it was a bad idea. It was hard enough to avoid infection as it was. It was still great watching Al and enjoying the cool sea breeze. The sun was already hot and it couldn’t have been past 10am.

On the road again we whizzed along the coastal motorway northbound to the Marble Mountain. The surrounding were dusty and arid streets with uninteresting buildings lining the main road. To our left there were patches of land either being developed into beach resorts, or they were pieces of land that had been bought up and would soon also have the same fate. This meant there was little public beach to find on our way to the mountain.

30km north the Marble Mountain became prominent on the horizon. The sun was strong without any let up from clouds. We weaved through the dry and dusty small streets filled with marble shops and factories. On the other side of this are was another motorway. With it being almost lunch time we found another Cafe Den Da (Cold Ice Coffee) which was now a regular, then a food place on the side of the road. It was the usual, rice with a jambalaya of different things chucked on top. In this case, shrimp, pork, vegetables, fish, chicken…almost too much different stuff for my liking, but at only 24000dong, there were no complaints.

The Marble Mountain itself cost 15000dong each if we walked, 30000dong if we caught the elevator. We walked. In the intense heat we stopped regularly, but it didn’t take too long to climb the protruding marble rock. Within the mountain were 3 caves. The first being the most impressive. Each one was a Buddhist temple carved into the cave.

                           

They were cool and tranquil places which were a welcome escape from the intense sun. We climbed as far up as we could, through small cracks in the rock until we reached the top with a great view of the surrounding area. Including the vast development of the beach to the South of Danang where numerous large resorts are underway.

Suddenly it was very easy to see how to get to another public beach, however it looked pretty bare with only a few trees for potential shade. In the other directions it was flat arid land with a river winding in the distance with other protruding marble rocks emerging out of nowhere, dominating the view in the west.

After our descent we checked out this beach we spotted. There was really nothing but a few fishermen sat next to their beached boats, untangling nets and making fish traps. Their boats were woven huge round bowls. They were the little boats that were used to reach bigger boats anchored offshore behind the aggressive rift.

We chose to bike inland a little and see if we could encounter some less hectic roads and with the quieter roads, hopefully for little villages on the way back to Hoi An. A couple of random turns found us in the marble sculpture behind the scenes area. With many men working on huge chunk of stone, carving, grinding, polishing. It was an interesting insight to the industry and Al even got a go and doing a bit of chiseling!

Back on a smaller road we did not encounter villages as such, but rather small road side settlements. We stopped off for a further Cafe Den Da, realising how tired the heat and sun had made us. We decided to randomly meander back to the An Bang beach using smaller roads. It took much longer this way, but much more fun. At one point we found ourselves off road completely, driving on a raised bit of land between rice paddy fields before being spat back out on a larger road and finally making back to the beach.

This time the beach was heaving. To our surprise not with backpackers, instead with Vietnamese. It wasn’t clear if they were locals or on holiday. Either way, it didn’t matter to us. We enjoyed relaxing with a couple of beers and watching the chaos. It was not a bad chaos, just manic full of people all swimming and enjoying the evening. In between cafe owned beaches there was a narrow strip of beach where locals set up food stalls selling fish soup and dehydrated barbecued fish, a perfect beer snack.

After a long enjoyable but hot day we drove past the travel agent to give them out hotel name before giving the bike back. There was a twist however, they had not been able to book the bus ticket they sold us because but bus didn’t actually leave until 6pm (not the original 12pm). This wasn’t so bad, but with further conversation we discovered that the price was the same whether we got off at Qui Nhon or Na Trang (Qui Nhon being half the distance). With this new piece of information, it completely changed our decision. After much debate we chose to buy a different bus ticket directly to Buon Ma Thuot without breaking up the journey. Making this decision really took it our of us. We were totally shattered. Returned the bike and went for a beer and suckered for some overpriced tourist food as food tends to stop at 9pm for the locals.

Our new bus was due to leave at 6pm, so we had a chilled day watching the world go by in the same waterfront restaurant with a couple of Bia Hoi’s. We overheard a middle aged northern English couple complain about the Bia Hoi; “It tastes like piss water! Where did you get it from? There?”,The man said pointing the river. An ignorant comment that made me want to escape this tourist trap even more!

The bus ticket included pickup to the bus station. We were told the bus would leave at 6pm, at 6pm our pick up arrived, so understandably we were a little stressed that we would miss the bus we had been waiting for all day. The taxi took us way out of town to highway 1 and told us to wait on the side of the road. A bit annoyed to why the travel agent hadn’t told us what to expect we realised we were being herded around like stupid tourists and wouldn’t let it happen again! On the plus side, whilst we were waiting we got a glimpse of a local aerobics class in a nearby shop front. The room was mirrored and tacky house music blaring out. It was really funny, and the other Vietnamese waiting for the bus to arrive thought so too.
Our bus eventually came half an hour late and we got on board the most bizarre bus I had ever seen. It was a sleeper bus with bed like seats we were ushered to the back of the bus. Luckily for Al he got a seat without anything in front of it. There is no way he would have fit otherwise! The bus swayed and bumped its way to Buon ma Thuot for the next 12 hours, allowing for a dinner stop where we shared the usual rice and other complimentary suspects with 5 other people. The meal was included with our ticket and I was surprised that we stopped and got a decent hot meal. We thought that aeroplane like food would be passed round, so it was a bonus to try and sleep when full.

The 12hrs were restless but we found ourselves in the out of town bus station at 7am not having a clue where to head or how to communicate it. Hoi an had been fun but there was a weird sense of relief being the only westerner in sight. We were were finally off the beaten track!

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