A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Hoi An, Vietnam

Our next stop up the coast was Hoi An. We took our last official overnight bus ride of our trip. Hallelujah. It was a Sinh Tourist bus, the kingpin of travel in Vietnam, and it was the first multi level bus I’ve ever seen. With fully reclining seats stacked on top of each other in two levels. It looked quite promising but unfortunately it was most uncomfortable. First, I had my big satchel and the food bag and there was nowhere to put them. One I hung off the side, the other I stuffed between my feet so I was virtually immobile. Secondly, there was a sharp piece of exposed metal right under my Achilles heal, so I had to choose between wrapping my feet in the single provided blanket or turning blue under the full blast of the AC directly over my bunk. Either option left me sleepless. Overnight travel is pure torture, and I won’t be shedding any tears over our last sleeping bus.

We arrived in Hoi An in the early morning and proceeded to get turned around in the wrong part of town with no hotel in sight. There is nothing quite like being sleep deprived and lost to make you feel hopeless and irritated. A nice man pointed us in the right direction and we soon found Thanh Binh Hotel 3. Off the main street was an attractive hotel, the dark wooden interior had a Chinese flair which made the Roman statues of the inner courtyard pool seem more oddly placed. Our spacious room on the second floor had two beds, fast wifi, and a balcony for $25 a night.

Hoi An, an important trading port between China and Japan in the 15th-19th century, has retained a rich cultural heritage. In even earlier times, it was a hub of the booming spice trade, that brought much wealth from afar. The Old Town is now a World Heritage site, and it is a fascinating marriage of Asian and European architecture. There are Chinese style shop houses next to a Japanese covered bridge, juxtaposed harmoniously like a 5-spice blend with colonial style buildings. It feels like you are walking around on a movie set. These two enterprising grandmas were stars.

At night, the streets of Hoi An are lit up by brightly colored lanterns, and filled by pedestrians taking in a pleasant stroll by the riverfront shops.

We wanted to try some of the local dishes, and headed to a restaurant called Faifoo (interestingly, the previous name of Hoi An itself). Our ebullient waitress Yum Yum advised us on a few tasting menus and soon our table was filled with: Cao Lau, White Rose, Binh Xeo, Wonton, Springrolls, Cuttlefish, and Vegetable Soup. We topped off the feast with a Vietnamese bottle of Vang Dalat Red Wine. It was quite a gorging and we walked away (or waddled as it were) with a bill of only 300,000 dong (or $16). We were so in love with their Binh Xeo, a fried savory pancake wrapped in lettuce leaves, we had to return for our last lunch in town to have it again.

The next night we went to The Cargo Club, a highly lauded restaurant on the riverbank. Replete with white tablecloths and sparkling silverware under the soft glow of lamps, I felt severely underdressed in my Cambodian t-shirt. We started with the baked brie. Need I say more? Ron had bacon wrapped pork chop and I had an extra creamy gorgonzola fettuccine. Despite the severe lactose overload, it was a lovely evening dining on the terrace.

Hoi An’s other claim to fame is their prolific tailor shops and made to order wares. They had some totally cute coats with asymmetrical collars, but I couldn’t justify spending money on a jacket in the balmy weather. However, I made no qualms about talking myself into some new sneakers. Yum Yum told us that Shoes 9 on Tran Hung Dao was a reputable place that made shoes to order with real leather. I tried on a pair of hightops with a Velcro strap in a myriad of color. It was supposed to be a sample of all the types of leather on offer, but they were so funky that I wanted them off the rack. The girls seemed a bit confused that I’d want such an ugly pair of shoes but were quite happy to make a twenty dollar sale.

We meandered around town window-shopping and sight-seeing in the stifling hot afternoon. Our hair was wild and unkempt so we ventured to a hole-in-the-wall salon called Nana on the other side of the Japanese Bridge . Nana had spent a year in Hanoi becoming a beautician but was back in her hometown. My cut, the first of the trip, was a decidedly Asian inspired bob with a straight bang. Ron got his hedge-like hair mowed down mostly on the sides and back, but leaving some height a la Kramer. His hair grows like a Chia pet so this has been his 3rd or 4th cut.

We both sported the ultra fashionable Chinese bamboo hats, although mine was ten times too small. I wanted to get one Sushi sized, as a Halloween costume, but I hesitated at one shop and never found the size on offer again. What a shame, she would have been an adorably cute Chinese cat.

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