Hoi An, Vietnam (27th Nov 2007)
Hoi An is a great little river town and is an exceptionally well preserved example of a 15th to 19th century trading port and has stayed so nice because it is one of the areas that managed to avoid being heavily bombed in the war. "Hoi An's buildings and its street pattern reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that combined to produce a really unique heritage site" or so our city guide says... and to be honest it is hard to disagree with him as it really is a wonderful place that attracts tourists by the droves due to the cities architecture.
We arrived at the train station in Da Nang at about 11am and grabbed a rather suspect taxi (unmarked and no meter) and started heading toward Hoi An. The weather was pretty poor, with signs of rain and strong winds that moved the taxi across the already dangerous roads. En route to the hotel as we stared out of the windows looking depressed, I think we both decided this was a day you wish was a Sunday, so you could spend it under the duvet on the sofa, watching TV, all snug and warm. The drive into Hoi An was a short 30Km hop along the coast down one long and straight road along the sea front and watching the waves crash in was a great sight; they were huge and almost coming up to the road. Hearing the crashing noise makes you realize the full force of the sea.
After about 20 minutes we arrived at our hotel and fortunately the rain held off. We checked in and were surprised to find out that all our friends who are still with Intrepid had yet to arrive so we thought it best to hang around in the lobby on the internet until they did arrive so not to miss them and get left on our own without a guide. Not too much time passed before they arrived and we went out for dinner at a local restaurant for our city orientation meeting and brief walk around to help us get our bearings. This city was really like a little French town in the countryside. It's full of French architecture and it makes you really question yourself on where you are. Like many places we have now been to in Asia you soon realize the domination and influence the French really had on many places in the days of French-Indochina.
Our first day and night we didn't really do much except walk around the town and get a feel for the place so we might have a clue about where the mains sites are. It is clear to see when you walk down any of the little narrow streets that the tourist trade is now Hoi An's bread and butter, and just about every business in town is geared toward it, most notably so are the amount of tailors and restaurants. This conspires to make it one of the most authentic, but at the same time, one of the most artificial Vietnamese towns on the map. Yes, it's nothing but a big tourist trap, but it's an excellent tourist trap that shouldn't be missed. Our first night was spent catching up with all the guys from our last trip and having a meal together at a little family run place on the riverside; the food was good and the drinks were cheap so it ticked all the boxes really. After we all finished dinner we were surprised to find out that while we had been in the restaurant the tide had come in and now the river had flooded the street out front by about 4 inches, this meant we now had to leave by the side door of the place where the water was only an inch deep but rising. It is really a surreal experience as none of us knew that apparently this is normal and happens most nights.
For day two we had to make the most of it and see tourist sites, so that is what we did. It cost us 75000VNDong (£2.50) to buy an Hoi An Old Town entrance ticket that lets you go to any 5 main tourist attractions in the town, including the main spot, The Covered Japanese Bridge. Our first stop was to the Museum of History and Culture which took us about 10 seconds to go round and was nothing that we hadn't seen before, bronze statues, bells and some other Cham artefacts and was a bit of a letdown really after been impressed with its glamorous big front entrance, anyway, not to worry on to site 2. Stop two for the day was at a place called Quan Cong Temple, a place that is dedicated to a highly esteemed Chinese general who to the Chinese is worshiped as a symbol of loyalty and justice. As with most of the pagodas we have visited, animal carvings from wood and stone play a big role in the decoration, this place being no exception to that rule. The very middle of the pagoda there is a statue is that is in a covered outdoor courtyard which of course like every other statue is painted gold. In the courtyard itself there are lots of mosquito coils that are burning, which can be bought and hung there in memory of someone who has died, and with hundreds hanging down slowly burning away it is quite an overwhelming site. The next two site we had planned are the two that are meant to be the must see in Hoi An so that's why we "Left the best till last?"
After a short walk along the riverfront we arrived at Tan Ky House. The house itself sits just a few metres from the river and is separated only by a one way Street, which we later found out floods every night, hence why the houses all have about ten steps up to them.The house has a mix of Japanese and Chinese architecture and has been lovingly preserved to look almost like it did in the early 19th century. As we walked in we noticed various height measurements marked out on one of the main walls which we later found out to be the heights at which the river had flooded in the past. One of the highest levels was around 2 metres and was dated just two weeks before we got there so we were lucky to even get to see the house in its full glory, although to be fair to the people who look after the building you couldn't even tell a flood had even happened let alone just 2 weeks prior. The building was very highly decorated and looked very nice as a piece of art but it's hard to imagine that this is how they used to build their houses and live in such ornate places.
After a short walk down the river front we reached The Japanese Covered Bridge. It was built by the Japanese community of Hoi An in the 1590's in order to link them with the Chinese quarters across the stream. It was smaller than we expected but none the less was interesting walking along it and having a look around even if it's not the most breathtaking sight to see. With the sun just about shining we headed for the beach for the rest of the day. The beach was a real surprise with golden sand, palm trees and a deep blue clear sea. This was our first time on a beach in 6 weeks and although by the time we got there it was windy and overcast, Mark and Alastair striped down to their shorts and went running into the cold water, splashed around and came running back out after a few minutes as it was too cold to stay in. There was a fair bit of rubbish in the sea in some parts which are remains from the typhoon they had a couple of weeks ago. The waves were huge ad we all wished that there was somewhere we could have hired out some body boards to ride the wave that kept crashing in.
The evening would be our last with the group for a couple of days as although we were going to the same places until we all split up, we were now doing the trip on our own and just tagging along with their guides, which already was saving us so much money compared to if we had booked the organised tour. The group guide Son had pre booked for everyone to go to dinner at a place called the Cargo Club and it was probably the nicest place in town to eat. Son informed the group that we should be prepared to pay a premium compared to what we normally had been doing but since it was pretty much a 5 star restaurant with a huge selection I don't think anyone was bothered. The food came and went in less than an hour (much faster than the local run places) and it was absolutely amazing the best food we had had so far, so good in fact that mark had his main course twice while waiting for others to finish theirs. The rest of the night was spent in a really nice bar called Tam Tam Cafe which we think was owned by the same people as the Cargo Club as it was just opposite and equally as nice. On the walk home when we thought that the night was over we discovered the home brew beer... Most of the restaurants we now know make their own beer and have it in big vats out the front which you can just sit down and drink, so we all took a pew and ordered some of the beer. It was 3000VND (less than 10p) a pint and was really good compared to even the bottled beer we had been drinking and paying twenty times the price for in the bar down the road, another priceless experience that everyone enjoyed and will savour for a long time.