I Heart Hoi An
It’s been over a week since we arrived in beautiful, idyllic Hoi An and we’ve travelled a great deal more since then. That’s one reason why I now find myself catching up on blogs. But another is that in Hoi An I finally found myself able to really process and reflect upon this journey. And part of that processing has been uncomfortable to say the least, so much so that I’ve been reluctant to write it down. But more on that another time…
Right now I just want to indulge in reminiscing on quite possibly one of my favourite places on earth, let alone favourite place we’ve visited on this trip.
Again I fear my words will fail me in attempting to describe the setting of Hoi An. To put it into perspective, I left our story on the night train, travelling from crazy Hanoi to Da Nang, where we would pick up our transfer to Hoi An. We suspected that we might want to look at changing our flights, as somehow (an error in judgement on our part) we’d ended up with only 2 nights in Hoi An. Oddly we had booked ourselves more time in cities than anywhere else – not the favourable choice for us country bumpkins!
We kept being told that the 14 hour night train would be an ‘experience’…you know the sor of ‘experience’ said with blatant inverted commas, suggesting not the most pleasant of experiences! Perhaps this lowered our expectations, but remarkably we actually loved the ‘experience’. Accommodation was two basic single bunk beds in one cabin. We booked ourselves the two lower bunks so we could see each other. We actually fell asleep holding hands across the space (*cue throwing up into a bucket*).
We were sharing with two Vietnamese gentleman, travelling independently, who kept to themselves, only snored a little and were very polite when stepping from our beds into theirs. The train departed at 10pm. We propped ourselves up on pillows (trying not to think of whether the linen had been cleaned and changed and, if not, who might have been there before us), switched on the night light, opened our books and settled in. I eventually put my iPod on, drifted to sleep and awoke at goodness knows what time feeling peckish and needing the loo. James was fast asleep so I picked up my wet wipes and antiseptic gel (essential travelling tools!) and braved my way to the loo. The first trip was relatively painless, but by trip seven I needed to hold my breath, think of England and wipe my feet down afterwards. I’ll leave that to your imaginations.
On returning to bed I sat up with the night light reading Pride and Prejudice and eating popcorn, soothed by the gently rocking of the train. I slept on and off the entire 14 hours, waking only to pee, snack (NOT at the same time obviously!) and take in the views as we neared the coast. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
Feeling filthy yet rested we disembarked the train and were straight into our hotel transfer. 45 minutes later and we were rolling into the open arms of Yun, our (slightly doolally) hostess at Long Life Backpackers Hotel in Hoi An. She literally embraced me (just me) and couldn’t help from side hugging or squeezing my arm on every occasion we met. Not easy for someone who’s not tactile and emotionally constipated when it comes to physically displays of affection.
We’d booked a basic double room so had low expectations. But on walking in we literally whooped with joy and jumped on the bed. You’d think we’d been given five star luxury for a tenner a night. It was just that we were so overjoyed to have clean sheets and a hot shower and a movie channel on the TV. These are things that fundamentally we do not need as human beings. Increasingly I’m disgusted by how much I miss luxuries, like cheese and television, and how little I tolerate different people and a bit of sweat and dirt.
The hotel was also equipped with a small outdoor pool and breakfast bar. Breakfast was pretty much eggs and bread, jam and bread, or sausage and bread. The “and bread” bit was a sizeable, straight from the oven white baguette. Turns out the Vietnamese like their baguettes and will eat just about anything in them, including spaghetti Bolognese.
The surrounding area of the hotel was rural and local, just on the outskirts of the centre better known as The Ancient Town. It was a cultural paradise. I’m not stupid enough not to see that over the decades it’s been carefully crafted to appeal to the hungry tourist/bohemian traveller. The ancient town is lined with handcrafted leather shops, cotton dresses, baggy trousers, beaded jewellery…a bohemian shoppers (I.e. Me!) paradise. But what puzzles me is that with all these beautiful things to sell, the Hoi An locals absolutely kill their business by literally pouncing on you in the street. We couldn’t make a passing glance at a shop, restaurant, cafe or piece of the street without someone appearing at our side and saying “you buy something” or “you want real food” (as opposed to fake food?). This was the utterly infuriating part of Hoi An. To be surrounded by such beauty, historic, rich culture but be hassled and marauded every single step. It made finding somewhere to eat rather tiresome and shopping impossible. Miracle of all miracles, I only bought two simple beaded bracelets from a craft shop a couple of doors down from our hotel on the morning of our departure, when I knew I wouldn’t get too harassed and could barter on the pretence that 50,000 dong was “all I have left”. This is where the travelling experience has brought out some of the worst in me. It seems unjust and immoral to cheat someone less fortunate than myself of their livelihood. I liken it to people underpaying me as a musician because it’s “not a proper job”. Again, more on that another time.
We used our time in Hoi An very strategically, in order to get the rest we needed, not over spend and not get too stressed out by the tourist trap. We had breakfast every morning, let it settle, read by the pool in the blazing sun for four hours, washed and dressed, headed out, found somewhere to eat and drink, played cards, got laughed at hysterically by the locals for how passionately we play cards, headed back to Long Life, watched a bit of a rubbish film, then slept. There were tours to be had, beaches to be seen, cycling to be done, haggling to be had, but we wanted none of it. Just to walk down the local streets, albeit briefly, absorb the surroundings, lap up the sun and rest our bodies was enough. Oh and the occasional enthusiastic side-hug from Yun, for me.
After the success of our day reviewing Hanoi I was sort of obsessed with finding the perfect places to eat and drink in Hoi An as well. But I soon realised that sometimes you just have to stop and out something in your body before you collapse! However, we did find a little gem of Hoi An, well away from the centre, The Ancient Town and all the desperate Vietnamese sales people, called Ho Lo Quan, owned and run by the now famous Amy. We stuffed our faces in the front of her little kitchen with Spring rolls wrapped in more rice paper and salad, beef Pho (basically stock and noodles), green papaya salad and stuffed squid all for less than £10. I kid you not. It was pure Vietnamese cuisine at its best. And the kind of food that makes you uncomfortably full but not at all guilty. Perfection.
That was Hoi An for us. Pure and simple. My only regret is not taking more photographs, but after the Bali phone incident (shudder) and we only have James’s iPhone to capture moments I’m terrified of getting it out too often, especially in the tourist areas. But my vision is to photograph less of more and I hope what I’ve got gives just a glimpse of how much I loved this place.
Side note: Reading back on my travel blogs I’m appalled by my grammatical and spelling errors and downright bad writing in places! But this type of blogging is difficult to be scrupulous and meticulous about and I find it’s easier to just splurge from the heart as best I can. So what you’re all getting is the rawest, most flawed part of me!