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

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