Good morning from the small town of Hoi An, where I've spent the last 3 full days - the longest stop of my South East Asia tour. We depart this afternoon on a private bus up to Hue, crossing on the way the Hai Van Pass, which looked amazing when Top Gear came here! The weather is nice and hopefully it'll be the same at the top of the pass. It'll be nice not to have to use a night train for a journey. The one to Hoi An was much worse than our first one, which much more basic facilities on board. I managed to sleep despite the train being as loud as a hurricane as it roared along, but our guide woke us up at 4.20am in preperation for getting off. The problem was that the train was running over an hour late for some reason, so we were just sat awake in a trance wondering where Danang station was! When we finally got there we had to board a private bus 45 minutes south to Hoi An, and the driver typically turned out to be horn happy - not what you need at 5.30am!
I've had a mixed few days here in Hoi An. 3.5 days is a lot of time to fill in a small town, but we've done a couple of half day excursions and I've passed a bit of time playing pool at the local pool club and watching the Australian Open tennis on the TV. Just as I was in a good time zone to watch the US Open back in September, here is only 4 hours time difference from Melbourne, and with the matches running late into the night its usually on until I go to bed. I've also caught a couple of English football matches this weekend - the Asians really are Premier League crazy and even our Vietnamese guide takes an interest.
The reason we've spent so long in Hoi An is because here is the tailor capital of South East Asia. There are well over 100 tailor shops spread across the town and they will make any custom made dress for girls, shoes, jewellery and above all, suits. With people needing to go for fittings and many items needing overnight alterations, it has been necessary for us to stay 3 nights. I however haven't bought a thing! I visited the premier suit shop, Yaly, and had a browse at their catalogues, but it was all a bit overwhelming. With the shop workers pressing you for a decision, and you not even being able to try any suit on (and therefore not being able to see if you suited it) I decided against buying one. All the suits I was drawn to looked similar to my one at home, and I don't want two the same. Plus I'm not sure how often I'll need a suit at home, especially with many jobs having lax dress codes these days. I could have got a decent suit tailor made for about 80 pound. You could get ones cheaper but our guide warned us that they may have problems when you wash them at home. One thing that amused me about the tailors is that their showcase suit magazines were basically comprised of English shop catalogues (especially Next), and cuttings from celebrity magazines. It didn't seem especially professional but I've no doubt the tailors would have done a good job! I did at least get my ripped shorts repaired for next to nothing at a cheaper place, though the woman offered to make me a replica pair for $15.
Aside from tailors there isn't a lot else in Hoi An. I was actually a little disappointed by the town itself having read about how quaint its supposed to be. The streets are narrower and older than other places in Vietnam I've visited, but they were nothing special and still full of motorbikes. The waterfront area was pleasant, but it was harrassment central with locals all begging you to go for a boat trip. The large central market was similar. As you walked through an echo followed you along saying "You buy something", as every stall holder jumped out in front of you saying the same thing. At least they weren't as "hands on" as in Saigon.
On our first morning here we took a trip out one hour to the ruins of My Son, a Hindu temple built by the Cham people from 4000AD to 1300. The Cham people are one of Vietnam's 50 plus ethnic minority groups. There are very few of them left now, and those that are left have all moved south to the Saigon area. There was also very little left of their temple complex as it suffered heavily at the hands of American bombing in the Vietnam War. A lot of it is also underground having being claimed by the jungle. When we arrived we listened to a very repetitive talk by our local guide before watching a short local dancing/music show. Our guide then took us round the remnants of the temple, but the tour only lasted about 15 minutes as it was so small. The complex looked similar to Angkor though obviously less impressive, but it was still worth seeing. On our way back the bus dropped us at a randomly located dock and we caught a boat back to Hoi An. At this point it was raining heavily making for a miserable scene on the river. The boat luckily had a roof and canvas sides but we still got a bit wet. It was also a tad cold, which made a pleasant change. I can honestly say that was the first time I've felt chilly since arriving in South East Asia - it doesn't even get cold at night. On arrival back into Hoi An we visited a local house for a feast of a lunch. They just kept bringing out dishes! The house was very modern and nothing like our Cambodian home cooked meal, but the food was definitely better. Vietnamese food has more flavour than Cambodia, though the dishes are still all based around noodles and rice, and neither country eats spicy food. There was no spider on the menu this time either, though I've seen plenty of weird items on restauarant menus in Vietnam. Frog and snail are common because of the French influence, and you also see things like ox penis and boiled pig's bladder from time to time.
The next morning we took a one hour cycling trip around the Hoi An countryside, passing plenty of rice pickers and water buffalo. Most of the locals wear their pointy lamp shade hats making for a very Asian scene. I did buy one back in the Mekong Delta for the purpose of posing for photo's, but I left it in Saigon as they really aren't very portable. Our destination was the beach which is 4km west of town, but we didn't stop long as the girls needed to be back for dress fittings.
Me and the other 3 lads though had no such appointments though, so we decided to do as the locals do and all hired mopeds for the day. For 24 hours they cost just 3 pounds (plus 2 pound petrol) and I got a brand new Yamaha one! They weren't restricted like the ones at home, but the engine size would have been pretty small as the Vietnamese need a special license to drive faster bikes (and most don't have one). It took a bit of getting used to, but once I'd mastered turning from a standing start (as you do at junctions) I was OK. The throttle was very sensitive and you rarely needed to brake as turning it down would slow you down instantly. We first rode around town, which was perhaps not a great idea! An even worse idea is that Courtney decided to get on the bike of my moped just to navigate the town's main junction. At this point I had turned two corners on a moped and with her weight on the back, and the busy traffic, I had to tell her to get off! Once we got on the open road though and I got used to cornering and accelerating it was easy.
We drove 61km in total, travelling right up past the Marble Mountains (where we're going on route to Hue this afternoon) and up to the outskirts of Danang. We turned back when the traffic in town got busier and stopped for off for a drink at the large Crowne Casino (one of many developments on the coast road). At that point in town I would suggest we were the most out of place people on Earth. The place was very, very high brow, and we had turned up in T-shirt and shorts and with moped helmets on. I was amazed they let us in but there was next to no one there. The drink prices were extortionate. My water cost me more than an average meal here, and JY bought a watermelon shake costing more than the moped hire. Dan went up to get some chips from the counter having been informed that the minimum bet was 10. We took this to mean 10,000 Dong (50 cents) but in fact it meant 10 dollars! He blew his sole chip on a game of roulette and we swiftly got out of there! On the ride back we opened the bikes up a bit on the open and empty dual carriageway. I reached 60mph which made me eyes water (we had no visor), which I later learned was way above the (unenforced) 38mph speed limits for bikes (very slow for the type of road). I had wondered why us foreigners were consistently the fastest thing on the road! I still have the bike until we leave, and I may take it for a more leisurely spin after I've finished this blog.
After our excursion we arrived back in time for yet another boat cruise, this time in aid of a sunset BBQ. We moored on a secluded beach (which had a blocked view of the sunset) and a local former restaurant owner cooked us a fantastic feast, including the largest pork ribs I've ever seen. That pretty much concluded our time in Hoi An, though I still have a couple more hours to waste. Next stop Hue!