There’s no denying it – we were properly excited for our next journey:
Although it would ultimately prove just as disjointed and long as our previous travels, at least it would introduce a mode of transport not yet experienced while away thus far: the choo choo train! Unlike Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam has in part a working railway, which mostly follows it’s Eastern coast line. Frustratingly it doesn’t go all the way from Hue where we were, to Hoi An where we were going; but at least it went as far as Da Nang, leaving the final 30km to be completed by local bus – more on that in a bit…
We opted for the more luxurious soft seat option, which meant just that – soft seats, as opposed to the cheaper ‘hard seats’ made from wooden benches. The comfy seating, air-con and extra large windows allowed us to truly enjoy the passing scenery; consisting of dramatic coastline, beautiful untouched beaches and dense tropical jungles. Despite the painfully slow speeds and constant stopping to let other trains pass, the train definitely trumped making another straightforward bus journey.
On arrival in Da Nang, after departing the coolness of the train carriage, we were met with a relentless wall of heat. Despite not really knowing where we were headed, we ducked past the waiting taxi drivers and began walking in the baking heat towards a hostel, to ask where to catch the local bus to Hoi An. Along the way we noticed a KFC pop up on my Google Maps (I’d cleverly downloaded an offline map of Da Nang), and couldn’t resist. After some familiar zinger burgers and fries while using the free wifi, we’d soon worked out where the bus stop was ourselves.
As the number 103 approached, the doors sprung open and a confident, yet friendly lady ushered us to throw her our bags. We quickly followed our rucksacks up the steps, and were efficiently directed to our seats. Despite fellow passengers being sick and a lack of air-con, it was to be another entertaining journey; watching the changing scenery go by while being mightily impressed with the lady’s multitasking skills: collecting money, directing people where to sit and taking care of everyone’s luggage, all while not falling over as the bus lurched from stop to stop.
After arriving at Hoi An bus station, followed by a 15 minute rip off motorbike ride (they overcharged us and lengthened the 500 metre journey by pretending not to know where our hotel was) we’d finally arrived at Green Grass Homestay (anyone used to watch Heartbeat?). It was a clean and pleasant establishment with a helpful receptionist, fluent in English. Although at first it seemed a little far from the old town, we soon learned it didn’t take long by bicycle.
Day 1 – Exploring the old town (and making purchases we hadn’t planned)
We started the day off exceedingly well with superb Vietnamese iced coffees and the local delicacy of Banh Mi. The fillings can change, but ours was the more common and consisted of a lovely crunchy baguette filled with grilled pork, liver pate, coriander, shredded carrots and chilli sauce. Awesomeness! Shall add this to my Vietnamese cafe menu of Banh Bao and Vietnamese coffees…
Following a brisk cycle, we soon found ourselves meandering along the lovely waterfront of Hoi An’s old town, consisting of beautiful French period buildings lined up along either side of the river. As we proceeded, we found ourselves having to zig zag through the numerous narrow cobbled streets, seeking to keep in the shade as much as possible due to the punishing sun that was bearing down on us. By far the majority of buildings were either shoe, shirt or dress shops. For those not in the know, Hoi An is famous for offering tailoring at a fraction of the cost you’d normally expect to pay in the West.
Despite initially doing well to ignore the relentless cries from people trying to peddle their wares, we soon gave in, not wanting to miss out on the bargain basement prices for tailor made clothing and shoes or the opportunity to have a go at hardcore bartering. Eventually a deal was struck for a pair of casual leather shoes for me, and a pair of sandals for Joella, all for a great price.
Day 2 – Shopping (and nearly a scary dietary transformation)
The next day kicked off with another excellent brekky, before then heading down to the old town to once again flex our bartering muscles. We both managed to pick up what we wanted for half the initial asking price; I got some new sunglasses (I wonder how long these will last me), and Joella a necklace and earrings – happy days 🙂
The negotiations were relatively easy, but navigating the streets was a little awkward. Everyone had to constantly jump out of the way as queues of cyclo’s (cycle taxis) cruised past, indicating yet another tour bus had recently arrived. This became even more hectic in the evening when even more tourists appeared, a shame given how beautiful the town was at night, in amongst all the glowing lanterns.
Later that evening, as we escaped the centre of the old town, something very peculiar happened. Something that may scare the living daylights out of many of you: I very nearly became… a vegetarian!? But if you tasted the food served up at this amazing vegetarian restaurant, you’d soon understand why. The flavours of our pepper mushroom stew, and lemongrass and chilli tofu were absolutely incredible 🙂 Oh, and it all being washed down with what are believed to be the cheapest beers on the planet (approx 9p per half pint) probably helped too – many of Hoi An’s restaurants serve up their own beers, made fresh each day.
Day 3 – Lazing on the beach (and extortionately priced second-hand books)
Deciding we’d had enough of the old town, and given it was another scorcher of a day, the beautiful An Bang beach was to be our destination for the morning. Following a 20 minute cycle, then dodging locals trying to charge us to look after our bikes, we found ourselves on an immaculate white sandy beach. Once we’d set ourselves up under an umbrella, we couldn’t resist running into the soothing turquoise sea to cool down, or the nearby coconuts!
Seeing Joella had recently finished one of her books, we thought we’d pop past the second-hand bookshop to swap it for another. The place was very impressive, spread out over a number of rooms in between floors, all arranged by language. After finding ourselves some new books, we discovered how relatively expensive everything was even when swapping, and many were priced as new, fairly disappointing considering these were VERY old and VERY tatty books indeed. So we left briskly without making a purchase.
Overall Hoi An was very beautiful, if a little touristy. We can definitely understand why it’s one of the most popular places on people’s schedules of Vietnam, and having a beautiful beach nearby seals the deal.
Goodbye central Vietnam; we’re now off to Saigon in the South, for an adventure through the Mekong Delta…