I wond’r how many shoes we’ll end up buying? Fighting temptations in Hoi An’s beautiful old town, Vietnam

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…

Train coming into Hue station
Inside Vietnamese train carriage
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.

Looking out through train window at Vietnamese scenery
Vietnamese train window scenery
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.

Giving directions to Vietnamese motorbike taxis
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…

Banh Mi in Hue
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.

Hoi An old town under tree
Hoi An Old town boats
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.

Trying on Hoi An tailored shoes
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.

Cyclo taxis in Hoi An Vietnam
Night time in Hoi An Vietnam
Paper lanterns in Hoi An Vietnam
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!  

An Bang beach Hoi An Vietnam
Jonny drinking coconut
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.

Joella choosing a book in Hoi An Vietnam
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…

I wond’r where the Banh Bao man has gone? Exploring palaces within the Imperial City of Hue, Vietnam

Our bus ride and border crossing into Vietnam was fortunately a lot more civilised than previous experiences between Cambodia and Laos. Despite being a little worried that our e-visa’s wouldn’t be accepted, we were soon fast-tracked (much to the annoyance of the locals) between the Laos and Vietnamese officials. Conveniently, they literally sit alongside one another, removing the need for us to walk long distances across no man’s land, which is often the case at land border crossings. No corrupt bribes requested either!

Arrival – Dinner (and getting addicted to Banh bao)

On arrival into Hue we were fought over by the circling taxi drivers, like vultures do with scarce pieces of meat. Nothing new there then! Our hotel was well situated on the edge of the backpacker area, full of bars and restaurants. Although our room was a little noisy from the traffic outside, at least we were an easy walk away from all the lovely grub and ice cold beers. Ironically however, we soon discovered that sometimes one doesn’t need to go hunting for good food; it often comes to you…

While reclining in the many tiny seats and stools that sprawl out on to the street in one of the more popular bars in town – Ta Vet, we heard a sound we’ve become accustomed to in South East Asia: a loud recording played repeatedly from a passing motorbike selling some sort of street food. Initially, as per usual we found this fairly annoying and ignored it, not interested in risking food poisoning to save a couple of dollars. But this time was different, and we couldn’t help but notice a number of bar staff lined up to purchase the food on offer.

Beers in Hue Vietnam
Feeling inquisitive, a little more confident and a lot less cautious after our beers, I hailed a nearby waitress to ask what the guy was selling. She looked puzzled, then ran over to her colleagues, returning with a piece of paper with “Bao cake” scribbled across it. Based on our love for Bao (mentioned in our Phnom Penh post) we couldn’t let this opportunity slip away, so within a flash I’d grabbed a piece of the action. It was truly scrumptious: a sweet, soft, pillow like doughy bread, encompassing a lovely minced pork and onion filling, along with a boiled egg hidden inside. Within seconds we’d devoured it and were left frustrated for the rest of the evening, not having purchased two each as our entire dinner! 

Banh Bao in Hue Vietnam
We spent the rest of our time in Hue failing to track the Banh Bao man down again; instead hearing him go past our hotel late at night after we were already in bed. It seems Banh Bao is like love, you’ll only find it when you’re not looking…

Later that evening, while reluctantly eating dinner not including any Bao, we were reminded just how small the world can be. A friendly Ozzy sounding bloke (check out my attempt at Australian lingo) by the name of Brian, offered to take our photo. After getting chatting to him, we soon learned he now lives in Adelaide but was in fact originally from Colchester in Essex, only a few miles from Billericay where Joella is from!

Day 1 – Exploring Hue’s Imperial City (and greasy baguettes)

Rather than grabbing breakfast at our hotel as per usual, we decided to venture out and have it en route to Hue’s biggest tourist draw: the Imperial City. This turned out to be a comical mistake. After opting for scrambled eggs, sausage and bacon, I was served up a rather minimalist offering, consisting of a quarter of a sausage and half a rasher of bacon. At least they’d included a nice tasty looking baguette. I mistakenly asked for butter, and the waitress disappeared with the whole baguette, only to return with it’s ENTIRE surface area smothered with a thick coating of lard. There was nothing left to do but have a chuckle… and stuff our faces of course 🙂

Jonny small breakfast Hue Vietnam
After a half hour walk in the scorching sun (July – August is the hottest time of year to visit central Vietnam), then purchasing tickets, we entered through the imposing gates of Hue’s famous Imperial City. Hue’s Imperial City, built in the 19th Century under instruction from Emperor Gia Long, is a 4km square walled palace consisting of a variety of beautiful residencies. Although only 10 major sites remain out of the original 160 (bloody wars destroyed the others), it was still incredibly interesting, beautiful and at times very peaceful, despite the many tourists. Getting lost within the tranquil gardens and ancient palaces certainly made a nice contrast to the buzzing streets outside!

Beautiful palace Imperial City Hue Vietnam
Jonny and Joella in front of Beautiful palace Imperial City Hue Vietnam
Jonny and Joella in front of Beautiful palace Imperial City Hue Vietnam
Hue Imperial City gardens Vietnam
On the way back to our hotel we discovered why everyone raves about Vietnamese coffee. While sitting at the usual midget tables and chairs in a rather understated cafe opposite the exit to the Imperial City, we were served up authentic Vietnamese style coffees. This included the necessary drip filters, condensed milk and separate glasses of ice to pour over. I do not know how this isn’t more of a thing back in the UK, especially eclectic London during the summer!?!? Perhaps my next business venture, alongside Bau…

Joella in midget chair Hue Vietnam
Slow drip coffee Hue Vietnam
That evening we partook in my newly invented form of dining: a Tapas-crawl. This, as the name suggests is derived from the concept of pub crawls, and consists of sampling various small sized portions of foods at a variety of eateries within a given evening. The highlight was most definitely ending up in a local bar with no other Westerners about, eating the only food stuff available; which was squeezed out from tiny plastic sachets. It was a little like spicy, chewy pate. We were never quite able to uncover what it was, and potentially never will (and probably will never want to know…)

Joella in local bar Hue Vietnam

Day 2 – The Thien Mu Pagoda (and sweaty cycling)
On our second day we braved the hectic roads and the relentless sunshine on bicycles, while losing what seemed like our body weight in sweat. At first this was a little daunting, given the rather lax attitude to any sort of road rules. But soon we were loving it, and at least I was treating it like a game, of life and death I suppose. On the whole, drivers are very aware of their surroundings and don’t drive too fast, so trundling along on bicycles often felt safer than it does in the UK. You just need to avoid waiting for what you’d normally consider as safe gaps at junctions, otherwise you’ll literally be there forever!

Jonny and Joella cycling in Hue Vietnam
Our destination was the impressive Thien Mu pagoda, situated a few miles South West from Hue. This 7 story pagoda (pagodas always have an odd number of levels to banish evil spirits, unlike the pagoda in Kew Gardens in London – silly…) is the unofficial symbol of Hue. It has been refurbished and expanded upon a number of times since the 17th century when it was first built; including the addition of a giant bell that is said to be audible over 6 miles away! The Pagoda is also home to the car that a Buddhist monk (Thich Quang Duc) was driven to Saigon in, where he burned himself alive in protest of the way that Buddhists were being mistreated by the South Vietnamese regime at the time.

Thien Mu Pagoda Hue Vietnam

After exploring the lovely Thien Mu pagoda, we spent the rest of the day enjoying more sweet and tasty Vietnamese coffees and bowls of Pho, in between a quick trip to the local market that felt far more authentic and less touristy than those we previously visited. We also suffered another casualty of the trip – my sunglasses 🙁 One of the lenses fell out, leaving me looking like a pirate on holiday…

Bags of beans in Hue market Vietnam
Pho in Hue Vietnam
Jonny and his broken sunglasses

Shockingly, Hue was never originally on our itinerary, and we were only made aware of it thanks to an Ozzy bloke with size 12 shoes we met back in Phnom Penh. Thank God (and the big Ozzy lad) we adjusted our schedule and made the visit, it would have been gut-wrenchingly annoying had we missed it!

Next stop – Hoi An (not Hanoi that Joella, and I’m sure many others get it confused with)…

I wond’r if he has rabies? Surviving aggressive dogs and monsoons in Savannakhet, Laos

Despite promises of VIP buses with air-con, our transport for the eight hour journey to Savannakhet was barely fit for the road. The tyres were looking very light on tread, and there were holes throughout (in the body work, seats, internal fascia etc). To make matters worse, on top of the aisles being used for storage, huge sacks stuffed full of who know’s what were crammed under every seat, leaving us little to no room for our legs. Not the most comfortable way to travel, but it did give us an insight into how Laotians normally get from A to B – no more moaning from me about the London Underground at rush hour!

Bus to savannakhet
Savannakhet bus aisle
Old savannakhet bus interior
After happily arriving in one piece in Savannakhet, we negotiated well for a ride in Laos version of a tuk tuk. Unlike Cambodia’s Remorques consisting of a trailer attached to a motorbike, these were more aggressive looking and colourful machines, made from one single vehicle. We were once again staying in bungalows, although were more substantial than in Kampong Cham, and the floor, walls and ceiling were all fully sealed – no risk of visits from spiders / scorpions!

Savannakhet Laos tuk tuk
Joella in Savannakhet bungalow
Savannakhet is laid out in a grid style and has always been an important trade town for Laos, being close to the Thai border and en route to the Vietnam border too. Given how quiet and desolate the streets were, it was difficult not to draw comparisons with some of the scenes in The Walking Dead we’ve been watching on the iPad!

While searching for suitably tasty replenishments that evening, we neared the banks of the Mekong and were pleasantly surprised by the old town area. It consisted of lovely french style housing (from colonial times) centred around a quaint and rustic square full of bars and restaurants, where we enjoyed some surprisingly good live music alongside refreshing BeerLaos.

Savannakhet old town
Savannakhet old town bar
Jonny drinking in Savannakhet old town
For dinner we put our trust in Lonely Planet’s recommendation, and headed to Lin’s cafe. It turned out to be a charming little establishment, complete with an indoor water feature, blackboards illustrating the coffee and a menu bursting full of local and Western delights. The decor wasn’t too far away from the hipster cafes back home in London! Although the Green Thai Curry was lacking in oomph, it filled us up adequately.

Day 1 – Booking bus tickets (and being hustled by scary dogs)

After some bananas for breakfast, gifted to us by the lady at Mali Guesthouse in Don Khong, our first mission of the day was to book a bus out of town over the border to Hue in Vietnam. Despite our best attempts to locate a bus booking office in the nearby old town, we were left to admit defeat and walk two miles to the bus station. At least this gave us more of a chance to explore Savannakhet, out with the old town – who knew it once hosted the Olympic Games (apparently?). This also resulted in getting tickets at the lowest price, without paying a middle man. I had a rather nasty surprise when choosing refreshments for our walk back – Genmai flavoured green tea (the bottle on the right), tastes like watery wheatabix, so not the most refreshing, and Joella made me finish it – domestic abuse!

Savannakhet Olympic sign
Green tea bottles Savannakhet
That evening we found ourselves back in the old town square for dinner, this time in what felt like someone’s living room; the family where watching TV on one side of the room, while we sat on the other slurping our flavoursome Chinese noodles. After a brief conversation with one of the regulars, half in French and the other half in English, helpfully translated by his shy daughter, we were on our way.

Up until now we hadn’t paid too much attention to the numerous dogs (of all shapes and sizes) that roam the streets, night and day. They didn’t seem to be strays, just left by their owners to do as they will. However, on our walk back to the bungalow we got the scare of our lives as one of the larger brutes crept up and growled aggressively within inches of us. For a second, my decision to opt out of receiving the rabies jab flashed before my eyes (even though this only gives you an extra few hours to receive medical attention). Fortunately however, he let us walk slowly away without any injury. We became quite cautious of the street dogs from that point on.

Day 2 – Visiting the dinosaur museum (and hiding from the rain)

On the second day we were glad to be alive, considering the torrential winds and rain our little wooden hut was battered with! As the heavy rain showed no signs of stopping, we decided to spend the morning chilling over some tasty Laos coffees made by the owner of the Homestay. Two hours later, not wanting to let the weather get the better of us, we headed out in search of the dinosaur museum (armed with umbrellas).
Jonny and Joella under umbrella in Savannakhet
The museum consisted of just two large rooms, full of glass cabinets containing numerous rare bones and ancient fossils (and cuddly toy kangaroos…!?). As the place was dead, we were lucky enough to be taken on a private tour. Just as well considering it was set up by a French guy, so unfortunately most of the written information was only available in French and Laos. Although there was one colourful poster in English, perfectly suited to our intelligence level too…

Dinosaur museum Savannakhet
Dinosaur museum poster Savannakhet
For dinner we couldn’t resist some of the Western restaurants, so we treated ourselves to quesadillas, hamburgers and fries. Apart from being double charged (the card transaction didn’t seem to go through so we paid in cash too), it was all rather scrumptious!

Originally we hadn’t even planned to visit Savannakhet, and were instead going to go via Laos’ second biggest city: Pakse. But based on our experience, and general consensus that Pakse is little more than a big city, we were very happy with our decision! Overall our stay in Laos has been short, but oh so sweet. Their dish of Lahp is possibly one of my favourite meals of all time, and BeerLaos one of the best lagers. Thank you and good night, next stop – Hue, Vietnam…