Monday, 26 March 2018

Vietnam, day 16: Ahoy, Hoi An!

Hoi An, Vietnam
29 May 2017
Early that morning, we arrived in Hoi An! However, as the main bus depot was a little far away from the centre, we caught a local bus. 
And let me say that this was by far the most bizarre bus ride I have ever undertaken, all because of one man: the bus driver's assistant. I don't recall ever being on board a bus with an assistant before, but this bus had one! Before departing, he lit some incense on the bus' dashboard shrine. He took it upon himself to tell passengers which seat they should take, and where to place their belongings. Often throughout the ride when passengers disembarked and new passengers boarded, he would rearrange people. On several occasions he snatched up his trusty bottle of window cleaner and sprayed it all over the inside of the windshield - including in front of the driver! He sprayed so much that it dripped down in thick rivulets, and then didn't wipe it off, instead leaving it to slide down the glass by itself. He fussed over everything: folding and refolding some little towels he had, messing about with a USB stick to make the tiny TV play K-Pop music videos without sound, hanging an umbrella in different places around the bus, poking a fan to make sure it was still working, and "helping" people as they exited (though it looked rather a lot like mandhandling-cum-shoving). The only time he stopped bustling about terribly was when he engaged a tourist in conversation - she was reading a book about Cambodian refugees and he eventually ended the conversation by ripping out a page that he thought was interesting for keepsies. Poor girl. We were too intimidated to do anything on the bus except watch him, but later we joked about all the crazy stuff he did, and Yannick postulated that he would be the sort of person who would turn up to an event with pre-arranged seating (like a wedding) and reorder everyone himself.

Once we arrived in the centre of Hoi An, we were immediately struck by its beauty and charm. The streets were stunning, with lush trees and flowers dangling down, and brightly coloured lanterns strung between buildings. Symptoms of the night's storm were evident, and we skipped over puddles and patches of mud on the way to our hotel. Though too early to check in, we dropped off our bags and set out again to explore.

One of the top sights in the town is the Japanese Covered Bridge, a wooden bridge dating back to the 17th century which has a Buddhist temple attached to the far side. Starting in the 16th century, Hoi An was a hub of trade, and attracted a cornucopia of multicultural settlers, including Japanese, Portuguese, and Dutch.

Across the street from the bridge was a fenced-off rickshaw, which may have been some sort of open air museum exhibit, and may have been related to the bridge, and may have been of Japanese influence, and may have been from the 17th century. There was no information about it, so my imagination ran wild and I assumed the best!

Strolling further down the street, we observed many townsfolk going about their morning routines, drinking coffee on little plastic stools, smoking, chatting, and slurping up soup. We happened to spy the facade of a Greek restaurant, which was the number one rated eatery in town on Tripadvisor. We vowed to return.

Fancying a bit of a sit down ourselves, we popped into a café for some drinks, and the view of the street was gorgeous! Sipping away, we gazed out at the locals riding their bikes and the lanterns swaying ever so slightly in the breeze.

Setting out again, we were bombarded with tailor shops. If I wanted a suit, this would be the place to go. Surprisingly enough, though there were a large number of souvenir stalls, there were almost as many art shops, which elevated the classiness factor.

The streets around the market were dingier than the main thoroughfare, but they were chock full of flowers and fruit, so it made up for it.

As it was still fairly early in the morning, the marketplace was much busier than the rest of the town, and we saw many goods on offer, from blocks of fried tofu to dried beans, from rice noodles to hard boiled eggs. I simply had to get my hands on some fresh pineapple and mango, and yum!

Swinging around my pink bag of fruits, we wandered away from the market to see more, more, more. We couldn't get enough of Hoi An.

In all fairness, the town was very tourist-oriented, with plenty of Western style cafés, sidewalk racks crammed full of postcards, and women calling out "Hello boy, foot massage!" However, although it may not have been the most 'authentic' of Vietnamese experiences, we did eventually make use of all three of those tourist amenities, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

There were such a large portion of temples and assembly halls, it was faintly astounding. Walking down the street, you would have rows of old houses on each side, and every few steps it seems you would see a tiny wooden sign for a niche museum, a family chapel, or an assembly hall - each for a different cultural group. The reason behind this diversity was that Hoi An was established as a major port in the 15th century, with merchants from around the world dropping anchor here to trade spices and other goods (merchants were predominantly Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, and Indian).

For lunch, we devoured sandwiches at Phi Banh Mi. They had an amazing vegan option with spicy tofu! And the chilled soda water was perfect for the hot day. There would be no cardigans or scarves worn in Hoi An, oh no. It was back to normal Vietnam temperatures for us. One of the ladies who ran the place came over to recommend some sights, tours, and also told us of one of the best tailors in town (her sister). 

With still a bit of time to kill before the check in time, we booked a table at a riverside bar for later, and meandered around the waterfront. The river had had swelled from the storm, and was encroaching on the road in places.

This was the bridge that led to the small island that we were staying on, called An Hoi. We managed to traverse pretty much the whole island in quite a short amount of time.

Interestingly, although there were plenty of hotels, spas, lantern workshops, and stores, the far side of the island was more rustic, with small shrines, fishermen leaning off wharves, and chickens scratching around in the dirt.
At long last, we were able to check into our hotel and revel in some much needed showers. We napped to supplement our insufficient sleeper bus night, and then it was nearly time for drinks! 

With the heat of the day diminishing, the crowds had taken to the streets, and were posing for selfies left, right, and centre. Women selling paper lanterns that could be sent out across the river were out in force to cater to the tourist mob, as were touters for restaurants, bars, spas, and boat rides. 

Having pre-booked our spot at a bar, we got a table right by the window on the second floor and had a good view of the street below and the river. We ordered a 'bucket' of Mai Tai (and it really was a small pink bucket!), and were soon joined by our friends Bridget and Jance, whom we had come to know in Singapore. Bridget took one look at the bucket and ordered one as well. We chatted away for a good long while, and then when our drinks were finished we left to find dinner.

We dined at a restaurant called Morning Glory; I didn't eat any morning glory there, but regardless it was becoming one of my new favourite vegetables (unfortunately you can't seem to find it outside of Vietnam).

My fried aubergine was delicious, and we had French red wine to compliment the meal. French! Red wine! Not Da Lat red wine! We hadn't been able to find European wine sold by the glass for some time, so that was a nice change. Sleepy from great food, drink, and company, we returned to our hotel to fall into a deep slumber.

Today's post was almost called: City of a Hundred Thousand Lanterns

Friday, 16 March 2018

Vietnam, day 15: Friendship Pho Breakfast!

Da Lat, Vietnam
28 May 2017
Before heading out for another day's exploration, we packed up and checked out. We would be taking an overnight bus to Hoi An that evening, so we asked the front desk if we could leave our bags there for the day and they were very accommodating. The girl working at reception inquired as to whether we had eaten breakfast yet, and if she could take us out.
She brought us a few doors down to Rosemary Café, a quaint little place with the menus laid out on old records! We ordered drinks, and she popped out for a moment to order some pho from a nearby eatery (just for Yannick, as I don't usually eat breakfast, and she had eaten before work).

Her name was Tho, and we chatted for a while. She was practising her English on us, and was very good! Studying International Relations at university, she was looking forward to travelling to Singapore and Thailand. After a few minutes, a father with his small daughter entered the café with Yannick's pho - they had delivered! Tho was very sweet, and not only paid for our breakfast, but also complimented my eyes.

As we had heard tale of the many hikes that could be undertaken in the area, we visited the tourist information site to try to procure a map, but it was closed. We traipsed around the town inquiring at tour agencies, but they had no maps either. Instead, we decided to take a walk around Xuan Huong Lake.

There was also a road encircling the lake, so it wasn't exactly a nature walk like we had been hoping for, but the scenery was still pleasant. Many motorbikes zoomed down the road, often with two or three people aboard as is commonplace in Vietnam.

Sometimes people would park right by the water to have a snack or (in the case above) to shave using their motorbike's wing mirror.

Occasionally we happened across some fishing spots, but the lines didn't seem very active.

The far side of the lake (from the town centre) felt a bit more upscale, with a fancy restaurant and sculpted gardens. There was less hubbub on this side, though we continued to be passed by horse-drawn carriages bearing tourists along the waterfront. On our way back into the centre, I noticed that the sunscreen had detonated in my tote bag, but we mopped up the mess with tissues and found that luckily not all the sunscreen had ejected itself from the bottle, so we could remain burn-free. 

Concluding our stroll, we stopped at Windmills Cafe for refreshments, which confidently claimed to be "the best coffee shop in Dalat".

The interior was very modern, with plenty of glass, potted plants and dangling light bulbs. The café was situated on the second floor, right above the tourist information office, and we had a great vantage point for people-watching while sipping our teas and coffees. 

We noticed that the retaining wall across the street had been painted with an array of murals, and that it was a popular spot for touristic photos. So after we finished at Windmills, we went over to take some of our own photos! (Side note: look at me, wearing a scarf and cardigan in Vietnam - unheard of!)

For lunch we supped at Da Quy restaurant. Upon entering, we were surprised to find that we were the only patrons, and the lady who ran the place was eating with her family. I almost felt like I was intruding, but she quickly ushered us over to a table (and had to remove a child's stuffed toy from Yannick's seat - how cute!). The price was very reasonable so we ordered more dishes than was typical for us: morning glory, stir fried veggies with tofu, spring rolls, and chicken. Licking our lips after the delicious meal, we went in search of a supermarket to purchase snacks for the overnight bus.

Along the way, our attention was drawn by an adorable fluffy puppy curled up sleepily on a table outside a motorbike repair shop. I wanted to pet him so badly, but also didn't want to disturb him. Doesn't he look so soft?!
After wandering for a while and not finding much, I decided to ask for help at a tourist agency. A group of people flocked together to discuss my question, and then pointed to a man who allegedly spoke English, but he was busy on the phone. Then, a kid rocked up on his bike and he told us where to go. They were so helpful, but unfortunately we couldn't find anything that appealed to us in the supermarket (blast our Western tastes).

Shortly afterwards, we happened across a random street with several fruit and veggie vendors, and bought a bag of grapes for the journey. Success!

It was a very atmospheric street; a bit dusty, with awnings hanging everywhere, and a kid playing around on his dad's parked motorbike. We agreed that this street should be mentioned in Lonely Planet, as it made for an interesting detour and wasn't far from the main roundabout in town.

Even the street that connected the main drag to the fruit and veggie backstreet was a sight in itself, with tubs of shellfish laying out, bright signs advertising for street food, and motorcyclists puttering along the cobblestones.

In one little corner store, there was a tiny child gazing out at the world with wonder and confusion. The shop was so small that the owner had taken to hanging loads of gum (and anything else they could dangle) from the ceiling.
We then tested our luck at finding Voulez Vous café, but we ended up staring at a construction site and figured that either we had the wrong address or it had been demolished.

So, back to Rosemary Café we went! I was digging all the homemade sodas in Da Lat, which reminded me of the abundance of homemade lemonades in Prague. We ordered a passionfruit one and a blueberry one, and read for a little while.
When our time was up, we returned to our hotel where we hugged Tho goodbye, and caught our shuttle to the bus station.

The bus was the same set up as the last overnight bus we had taken, although this time we were on the top bunks! Soon after setting off for Hoi An, darkness fell and a huge storm unleashed its fury upon us with lashings of rain and thunder. The roads were very narrow, and many busses were overtaking us. At one point we barely escaped a head-on collision with a lorry. We discovered afterwards that apparently these sleeper busses aren't exactly the safest option, and most foreign tourists opt for trains or private cars instead. Well...when in Rome? (But yeah nah, we're not getting on one of those again.)

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Vietnam, day 14: Free Skirts and a Buttockful of Modesty

Da Lat, Vietnam
27 May 2017
Hopping off our overnight bus, we had arrived at a time when only flower sellers were out and about. 
We briefly went a-wandering in the hopes of finding a café to relax in for a while, but nothing was open.

Instead, we found a park where we could sit and book a hotel, as we had not been prepared enough to do so beforehand. Unlike much of Vietnam, Da Lat is quite temperate and I needed to keep my cardigan on! I could count the times I had previously worn my cardigan in Vietnam on one elbow. Despite the clement temperature, the humidity levels remained very high.

After successfully finding an available hotel with a 24-hour front desk, we dropped off our bags and prepared for the day by finding a nearby café in which to bolster our spirits. For me, that meant green tea and fruit. As we carelessly hadn't researched activities or sights before arriving in Da Lat, we took that opportunity to do so and quickly decided on taking the gondola to Truc Lam Monastery.

After walking to the gondola office, we hopped on an available capsule and off we zoomed above the treetops. The views were incredible, and we could see for ages across the beautiful forest.

A gondola staff member had happened to share a ride with us, and offered to take our photo!

Disembarking from our treetop vehicle, we discovered that the entrance to the monastery was super touristy. On one side of the road was a giant carpark full of tour busses, and on the other was a long row of stalls selling food and tacky souvenirs. This was quite off-putting and we considered not even going to the monastery after all, worrying that the interior would be just as bad, but as there was no entry fee we pressed on through the selfie-mad masses.

Before we could go further, I was required to don a buttock-scarf in order to shield my sinful legs from holy eyes.

Despite the kitsch-heavy entrance, the monastery complex was quite nice, and we enjoyed wandering around the different buildings and gardens. 

Even with the crowds, there was a sense of tranquility among the butterflies and Buddhist monks that floated around the grounds. 

Returning the modesty skirt, we strolled down to a nearby lake, which was also very popular among tourists (notably those who seek out swan boats). It seemed to be a so-called romantic location, as there were photographers capturing brides and bridegrooms' special days, but to me it came off as altogether too cheesy for my liking. 

Instead of catching the gondola back into town, we decided to walk. Unfortunately, the road proved less than ideal for pedestrians, having no footpath, and we ended up scrabbling our way up an earthen bank into the forest to ease our fears of accidentally being run over. It was quite mossy, and much more pleasant than the road.

Eventually, we left the forest and came upon a road lined with strawberry farms. Da Lat, with its particular climate, is famous for its strawberry production. We found some very reasonably priced berries from one farm, and a packet of strawberry lollies from a shop.

Desiring a break for our weary feet, we stopped at a café for drinks before continuing. Kan Coffee had yummy passionfruit and lime sodas, and of course Yannick had to fulfil his daily ca phe sua da fix. The menu had a quote I find very true, being a tea fan: "If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are too heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you."

Pressing onwards, we walked through a residential area which was hilly and felt strangely Mediterranean. 

There were loads of little run down houses clustered together, with very steep driveways where scooters were parked haphazardly.

Our last attraction for the day was a place called Crazy House. Originally a personal project of the architect, Dang Viet Nga, Crazy House was opened to the public in 1990 for sightseeing and as a guesthouse due to increasing debt. It remains uncompleted, with works ongoing (scheduled completion is for the year 2020). It's a bit difficult to describe succinctly, but basically it's a large complex of weird structures joined by a spider-themed courtyard, winding staircases and precarious suspended pathways.

Dang Viet Nga lives on the premises, continuing to design the various structures. She has cited Antoni Gaudí as one of her influences, though I have to admit that I much prefer Gaudí's work. Overall, the construction seemed a bit cheap, with poured concrete and painted plaster. 

After spending the afternoon napping, we headed out again in the evening for a nice restaurant meal. Clearly, some sort of event was taking place in the town centre and there were hordes of people! Many were feasting on delicacies fried up at roadside carts, so perhaps the crowd was a nightly dining experience. Instead of joining them, we visited Ganesh Indian Restaurant because I was craving Indian food. Inside, it was much more peaceful and we tucked into a delicious chana masala curry with vegan garlic naan on the side! Yannick also ordered a red wine that was produced in Da Lat, which we found to be odd: not sharp or strong, but different than any wine we had tasted and not in a good way.