Our introduction to Hoi An was promising. After a truly horrific 12 hour trip aboard a ‘sleeper’ bus from Nha Tra (more on that next post), we arrived at 6am and were picked up courtesy of the hotel we had booked via email the previous day. They served us up a refreshing cinnamon tea with cake as a gesture of welcome. Nice. It was misty and mysterious outside, and cool.
We spoke briefly to an early-rising Aussie guest at our hotel, who described the town as ‘magical.’
Indeed, Hoi An knows how to turn on the charm, especially at night, when thousands of coloured Chinese lanterns transform the old town area and river. Kitschy, but enchanting nevertheless.
It’s less impressive by day, but still compellingly photogenic.
(note the bride’s footwear)
We hauled ourselves out of bed at 5.15am one morning to watch the fisherman delivering their night’s catch to the central market. We arrived too late – they were sitting around in their boats having a smoko by the time we got there.
We were still in time to experience the market at its busiest. There were few other tourists around. It was well worth the early start to sample this aspect of everyday Hoi An life. (One of the vendors didn’t agree, waving us away when we bent to inspect her intriguing produce; another objected when I raised my camera to take shots of the basket of live ducklings she was selling). Here are some pics that passed the censor!
Clearly, Hoi An’s old town section is impressive, but the rest is like any other Vietnamese town, and I was aware of a niggling sense of let-down. I was not as taken by the place as the guide books suggest most travellers are. I certainly did not share the rapture of folk posting on the travel forums we had checked out while planning our trip.
Take away the tourist dressings, such as the Chinese lanterns by night and the little touches like the attractive signage in flowing traditional font that graced many of the shops, and I wonder what would be left beneath the facade? Some nice old buildings, to be sure, and a picturesque river – but Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and I’m not sure I understand why. Perhaps it’s a simple case of unrealistically high expectations…
PS: In the interests of accuracy and balance, I should add that the two instances of hostility from vendors at the early morning market were the exception in Hoi An, not the rule. Our hotel staff were delightful, and we found other locals friendly. As is the case throughout Vietnam, though, it’s hard to assess how people are really disposed towards you, since most encounters are with shop assistants, street vendors and restaurant wait staff, and are therefore in a business context.
Nha Trang is a typical seaside resort town: lots of restaurants offering a wide range of cuisines targeted at tourists, extended happy hours, some late-night party venues, a wide range of hotels, and an extensive promenade bordering a long stretch of beach.
It was off-season, we were told, but there were plenty of Caucasian tourists wandering about in beachy gear. There were a lot of Russians among them. Indeed, many of the restaurants displayed menus in Russian.
I couldn’t help but notice quite a few hoary old fart Westerners strutting along hand in hand with Asian girls in their teens or a bit older – proportionally more than we had seen in Saigon or elsewhere. Dunno whether the girls were locals or imports. Whatever, they didn’t look terribly enthused, and who could blame them. Hopefully, Nha Trang is not in the process of establishing itself as an alternative to Patong specialising in servicing creepy geriatrics.
The bay is gorgeous, straight out of a tropical dream.
evening settling on Nha Trang Bay
Unfortunately, contrary to the widespread promo claims of the sea being ‘pristine’, it is littered with plastic bags, bits of paper and other rubbish. This didn’t seem to bother some of the Euros, but swimming in a soup of refuse didn’t hold any appeal for me.
nice scene – shame about the crap littering the shore
Nha Trang is one of Vietnam’s prime tourist locations. Apparently, there isn’t a spare hotel room to be found during the peak season (July and August, when the Vietnamese take their holidays). It’s set up to thrive, with the big hotel chains having staked their claims in the best vantage points overlooking the beachfront, as is evidenced by the high rise construction currently underway. The climate is beach-friendly most of the year. The place has everything going for it.
Why, then, do the Vietnamese treat Nha Trang Bay as a dump, rather than recognising it as the outstanding natural asset it most certainly is? Environmental vandalism is always short-sighted, but in this case it is commercial self-sabotage. Bewildering.
We caught a 7.30am bus from Saigon to Dalat the morning after returning to Saigon from the Mekong Delta. The last 1.5 hours of the journey took us through some mountainous highland country and coffee plantations. Very different from anything we had seen in the south. When we arrived in Dalat, it was mid-afternoon…and COOL! This was a welcome change from the muggy tropical conditions we had sweated through in Saigon and the Delta. The hotel immediately adjacent to the Singh bus terminal was clean and cheap ($13 per night with breakfast), so we didn’t bother investigating further afield.
Once we had unpacked, we joined some great folk (hi Anne and Shai) we had met on the Delta tour for a walk uptown in search of a laundry. We passed some scrumptious-looking street food – marinated chicken grilled over coals – which I determined to sample during our stay (unfortunately, this was not to be). Closer to where we eventually located the laundry, I bought some fried chillie-infused banana from a street vendor, then a sugary doughnut-like fried treat. Greasy but nice.
We were amused to note that the locals were all wearing coats or jumpers. It was temperate, but not cold – we were still comfortable in the summer gear we had worn down south.
Later, we wandered down some steps towards the central market. There were few other tourists about – in fact, I don’t think we saw any. Street food vendors were out in force. We paused to have a closer look at the mysterious (to us) food items they were selling, and were quite shocked when one of the vendors, a middle-aged woman, shouted “Go!” and flung her pointed finger at us in an unmistakably hostile gesture. We went!
None of us had encountered anything like this in Vietnam. I reasoned that the woman was probably sick of curious tourists lingering over her stall and obstructing locals who might otherwise have bought food from her. The female contingent of our foursome was unconvinced, and less forgiving.
As we drifted around the market and adjoining streets, we observed that the locals looked physically different from the Vietnamese in the south. They tended to be darker, and their features vaguely reminiscent of American Indians, or Mongolians. We postulated that this may have been due to genetic pooling with the indigenous people of the region (or ‘minority people’ as they are known in Vietnam). They also seemed less affable, generally speaking, than the Vietnamese we had encountered in the south.
Outside our hotel, we were approached by the Easy Riders. These guys are legendary among travellers to Vietnam for their private motorbike tours, which venture far from the well-worn tourist track. My partner was into it, but I had decided I would not be getting on the back of any damned motorbike. Too dangerous on these mountain passes, and my back and knees would seize up after hours on the back of a bike, and…
By the time we had talked it through with these affable and knowledgeable guys, I was in. You only live once etc etc. Anne and Shai elected to take a 3 day Easy Rider tour down to Nha Trang, while we decided on a day tour around the Dalat region, taking in a minority villlage. I couldn’t believe I had acceded to this Easy Rider thang, but was excited at the prospect. We arranged to meet the Easy Rider crew late the following afternoon to finalise the deal.
That night, we ate at a nearby restaurant raved about in our guide book, The Rough Guide To Vietnam. It was a major disappointment all round. Bland, boring, and relatively expensive by Vietnamese standards. I’ve never had any faith in guide book restaurant recommendations. Why should travel writers have a clue about food, particularly unfamiliar cuisines? Well, in my experience, they don’t, and this was another case in point.
Next morning, my partner and I went exploring around the town. I snapped a couple of pics:
We took a break at a restaurant that proudly proclaimed its Lonely Planet recommendation in prominent lettering. We ordered coffee and a pancake, neither of which were anything special. However, the testimonials of travellers who had dined there were impressive – wildly extravagant, in fact – and we decided to give it a try for dinner that night.
When we duly arrived that evening, the place was packed with westerners in evening dress (WTF?), with a queue of others spilling out on to the street waiting to get in. Trying one of Dalat’s many other restaurants was not an option, apparently. I get the sense that many people slavishly follow every glowing recommendation in Lonely Planet, and see restaurants like this as boxes they just have to tick – an Essential cultural experience, without which they wouldn’t have properly ‘done’ Dalat.
How essential a cultural experience is a fucking Western style restaurant serving up food that only Westerners are prepared to pay up for? The locals were evidently eating elsewhere.
Anyway, we gave it a miss, and supped at another restaurant further down the street, which was not listed in Lonely Planet but boasted a book of equally gushing testimonials from past patrons (all Westerners). The food was eccentric – and awful. But the four of us had a fantastic night revelling in each other’s company, and discussing some Big Stuff. We were generations apart, but it felt like we were peers, close friends with much in common. A rare meeting of minds that I cherished, and one of the highlights of the trip for me.
It was all downhill from there. I was bedridden with severe diarrhoea and fever for the next two days and saw nothing more of Dalat. My Easy Rider breakthrough was not to be, and neither was that marinated chicken I had promised myself.
The Easy Rider guys were fine about my having to cancel. One of them gave my partner a couple of antibiotic bombs and some Chinese herbal pills to give me, and wouldn’t hear of taking money for them. My partner gave me a note from Shai and Anne and was lyrical in her description of them taking off over the hill into the morning on the back of the bikes. Maybe next time…
No more pics of Dalat, goddamn it – was intending to go mad with the camera during our Easy Rider tour. Still, travelling is undulating in its emotional highs and lows. It was my turn to cop it, and that’s just the way of things.