Hoi An, a preserved old historic town & designated UNESCO World Heritage site, is in the central part of Vietnam. The city’s architecture reflects the influences & history as a busy trading port that was once the heart of the spice & silk trade. Situated between China & the sea route to India, the Chinese & Japanese settled in Hoi An making it a thriving riverside town for hundreds of years. The most famous landmark is the Japanese or Temple bridge. The bridge is dedicated to the god of the north who controls the weather & also to Kashima, the Japanese thunder god who has the power to quell Nazuma, the earthquake Catfish Monster whose tail is in India & head in Japan. Superstitions abound, the many wooden boats on the Thu Bon river that runs through the town all have a pair of eyes painted on the bow in black & white, omens to protect the fishermen.
This town boasts well over 200 tailors, shoemakers, many art galleries & great food. This is THE place to have made-to-measure clothes or shoes made in a matter of hours. Just bring in a picture or pick a design from the floor models & your wish is their desire! Needless to say I felt like a kid in a candy store & yes we both splurged on some new made tailor made duds that are now on on their way to Canada.
Nightfall transcends the town into a silk lantern wonderland with hundreds strung across the streets & off almost tree. Old women & children peddle small floating candles that float along the river walkway. The riot of colours is breathtaking & magical.
A must see site about an hour out of town is the My Son Holyland, one of the most significant archeological sites in Vietnam. Once home to the Champa people, this sacred site has many temples, with Cambodian, Indian & Chinese influences &were once the country’s chief place of worship. Unfortunately many were severely damages or destroyed in the ‘American’ war (as referenced by the Vietnamese people). The remnants of war can also be seen in the pocked marked landscape, a result of the US missiles. The vegetation is very thick & we couldn’t help but reflect on the horrific jungle conditions the soldiers had to contend with.
Hoi An is a must see spot on the Ho Chi Min Trail & we were constantly running into people we had met previously, including Marlow & Lesley, the couple from Saskatoon. Through email we were able to arrange to meet for dinner on their first night & our last night in Hoi An. The laid back pace prompted us to stay an extra day. We loved this town, it’s gentle people & beautiful scenery, but it was time to move on & we when we left a little piece of our heart was left behind
Our last evening in Hanoi was spent strolling through the night markets & around Hoan Kiem Lake, the liquid heart of the city. Preparations were frantically underway to light up & beautify the city for Tet or Vietnamese New Year. This is celebrated on the first of the lunar year & this year it falls on January 31st. Upon returning to our hotel, after the evening out, we were greeted by the night staff who produced a birthday cake & beer. You can imagine our surprise & delight at this thoughtful gesture. They had noticed Bob’s birth date on his passport (all hotels require guests to provide their passport on check-in) & ordered a decorated cake to surprise him. Despite the fact that is was around midnight & we tired after our long return trip from Halong Bay, we popped open the Heinekens, cut the cake & had a little party in the lobby. Special thanks to Quan, Xieu & the rest of the gang at the Indochina Hotel!
Next morning we headed to the airport for the 1-hour flight to Da Nang. Upon landing we decided to take the local bus to Hoi An, figured out which way to go & walked just over 1K to the bus stop. Cost was $2.50 each (vs $15.00 for a taxi) & experience priceless! (Right now we know our good friend Rob is shaking his head). We obviously stood out & I kept thinking to myself we must look really odd as they kept staring at us-guess they don’t’ get many vintage flashpacker’s on the milk run! They are quite organized with two ‘bus packers’ pushing oncoming passengers to their seats, collecting fares & stowed the various packages, all with the bus barely stopping.
We finally arrived in Hoi An & were dropped off at the local bus terminal. We were off-loaded & had NO idea where we where, or whether to turn left or right. There were no taxis to be seen, no one spoke English & we had a bunch of sketchy looking guys swarming us offering to take us into town. We decided to regroup & headed to a local stall for a beer to figure things out. The man with me in the picture, Mr. Tran, came over & we started to talk as best as possible. In the end we figured he was a pretty good guy, promised me he would take it easy, and ended up hopping on the back of both his & his partners scooters for the 6K ride to our Homestay, similar a B&B. He was a man of his word & needless to say we arrived safe & sound.
January 21st – Bob’s birthday!We started the day off with a delicious bowl of Pho Ga (pronounced Fa) for breakfast. This is the traditional Vietnamese soup that is found in almost every restaurant. Biking to the beach was next on the agenda, so we rented bikes & headed out of Hoi An, past the rice paddies & lush gardens to Cua Dia beach, some 5 kilometres from our Homestay. The beach goes on forever, was relatively clean, quite deserted & had numerous basket boats waiting for the hoards of tourists who are no doubt elbow to elbow on warmer days. A walk was in order & the crashing waves were enjoyed while discovering some very interesting artifacts no doubt washed ashore following the recent typhoon. We continued on our trip riding past the big beach side resorts & into small villages. We had read about the Hoi An Blind Massage & decided to look it up & treat ourselves to a full body treatment. Quang, the owner lost his eyesight from some left over explosives from the war. Along with is wife Thu, they are professionally trained & work to support themselves & help other blind therapists to live independently. We had the best 1 hour full body massage for a whopping $5.00 each! The areas outside the town of Hoi An are lush with vegetable fields, ice paddies & herb gardens. The rows of vegetation are so well maintained & the colours vivid.
After a 15K ride we headed back into town to explore the different districts & ended up in to day market. Quite interesting, needless to say. I think the pictures will give you a good idea of the various wares the street vendors were hawking.
We finished off the day by having dinner at Secrets Garden, an intimate little restaurant with wonderful Vietnamese dishes. According to Bob, best birthday ever!
Limestone mountains, topped with lush greenery, many reaching well over 400 feet & rising from Emerald waters greeted us as we arrived at Halong Bay. In the Gulf of Tonkin, 4 bays are home to over 3000 islands. Fishing villages dot the waterways with floating markets selling everything from seafood, fruits & vegetables to cigarettes & beer. The beauty is breathtaking & home to many wave-eroded grottos.
According to local legend, when Vietnam had just started to develop into a country, they had to fight against invaders. To assist the Vietnamese in defending their country, the gods sent a family of dragons as protectors. This family of dragons began spitting out jewels and jade. These jewels turned into the islands & islets dotting the bay, linking together to form a great wall against the invaders. With magic, numerous rock mountains abruptly appeared on the sea, ahead of the invaders’ ships; the forward ships struck the rocks & each other. After winning the battle, the dragons were interested in a peaceful existence & decided to live in this bay. The place where the mother dragon descended is called Hạ Long, the place where the dragon’s children assisted their mother is called Bái Tử Long island, & the place where the dragon’s children wriggled their tails violently is called Bạch Long Vỹ island.
We where a small group & our cruise mates hailed from Dubai, Israel, Singapore, Scotland & Australia. After setting sail we cruised the karsts of Lan Ha Bay to one of the many villages & transferred from tender to rowboat in order to get a closer look at the islands, smaller grottos & the many floating houses. Returning to the boat we had a spring roll making lesson (delicious & will definitely be making these again) that were later served as appetizers. An enjoyable evening was spent chatting with this international group. An early breakfast followed by Tai Chi on the upper deck at 7 a.m. was a great way to start the day. We then headed out to visit one of the larger grottos & after a moderate hike entered a huge illuminated cavern & spent over an hour marvelling at the stalagmites, stalactites & marvels of Mother Nature.
No wonder this area is proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage site & one of the must see sights of Vietnam!
First impressions of Hanoi…beeping horns from chaotic hordes of scooters, buses & cars; electrical wires to challenge the best of Hydro One; lovely, smiling people; very walkable city, & a green light, when crossing a street, is just a suggestion! Yes, we have survived our first & second day in Hanoi & are loving it!
Jet lag was not in the vocabulary & we hit the road eager to immerse ourselves into the city vibes. Our accommodations in the old quarter proves very central to several must see sites such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Army Museum, Waterpuppet Theatre & the Hoa Lo prison (aka Hanoi Hilton) where several US airforce pilots, including Senator John McCain, were interned during the VN war. Needless to say, Bob was less impressed with the prison accommodations!
Our first afternoon was spent with Quynh & Viet Ang, two university students with the “Hanoi Kids”. This student run organization provides opportunities for students to practice their English while providing pro bono tours to folks such as ourselves. What a great time we all had learning from each other. They loved the mittens we gave them as a token of our appreciation & I now have two new friends on Facebook!
Today we met some great fellow Canadians from Saskatchewan & had a great time wandering around viewing the sights together. We are following similar routes through SE Asia, so here’s hoping we run into each other again in our travels.
Tomorrow we head to Ha Long Bay for an overnight on a VN ‘Junk’. We will update our post after this next adventure.
Timing is everything and while we have done our fair share of travel, strapping on a backpack and hitting the road without a fixed itinerary brings a sense of anticipation and exhilaration. Given this, one week from today, Bob and I will add another check mark on the bucket list and begin our journey as ‘flashpackers’ to South East Asia! For those of you who are not familiar with the term flashpacker, the following pretty much sums it up –
“a flashpacker shares some of the characteristics of a backpacker: a sense of independence, no fixed itinerary and relatively long periods of travel to more exotic and far-flung destinations. Whereas backpacking is traditionally associated with budget travel and destinations that are relatively cheap, flashpacking has an association of more disposable income while traveling and has been defined simply as backpacking with a bigger budget.”
Our journey begins in northern Vietnam , we will travel down the coast to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon) then on to Cambodia and finally Thailand. Needless to say the Canadian winter won’t be missed and we are more than excited for the opportunity to experience new and different cultures, foods and adventures. Yup, no bug infested hostels for this girl…although I do reckon a few unknown ‘creatures’ will be encountered along the way…stay tuned!