Bright lights, small town – Hoi An

The bus ride to Hoi An was pretty uneventful except for a pitstop where we encountered the most aggressive hawkers so far. These ladies actually made it onto the bus before we’d got out and started the usual thrust of wares in our faces. This lot specialised in little bracelets , Mentos and not a lot else. I needed to use the loos which were ‘free’ with the understanding that you’d buy something on your way out. The only trouble was that I couldn’t find anything so took my time choosing. The lady got frustrated and asked my boyfriend’s name (note to self, don’t tell them next time). She then roared across the car park “TOOOOOM, TOOOOM” until Tom was forced to come over and join in the fun too. After some very aggressive bartering and many frustrated attempts to simply pay for the toilet I ended up getting a bracelet for Tom as a present for putting up with this woman. It cost around a dollar in the end (about ten times less than she had originally asked for). The most memorable thing about these particular ‘sales women’ was that they had obviously studied up on countries so that they had an in with tourists. One of them grabbed Tom’s greenstone he was wearing and yelled “New Zealand! Small country, four and half million people!” Turns out they were more skilled up on our latest population stats than we were. Points to them for that at least.

This little scenario didn’t taint our first impression of Hoi An luckily. The heritage town buzzes with life and is hard not to fall in love with at first glance. Bright lanterns (Hoi An is also known as Lantern Town) and silk clothing paint the town every colour you can imagine which means walking around takes some time because your eyes are straining to look at everything they can. They call the centre, ‘Old Town’ and it is incredibly pretty. All of the buildings are styled to look the same, including the signs for each shop which can be confusing but does have a charming effect, making it seem like a little seaside village (even if it is flooded with tourists).

Our first meal in Hoi An was lunch. I chose the “White Rose”, a specialty of the town. They were rice paper dumplings with a tasty dipping sauce. Quite tasty but to be honest, they had nothing on the salad I also ordered. If you’re ever in Vietnam, get yourself a Green Papaya salad. It is the most amazing blow to the senses. Crunchiness, sweetness, saltiness and a sour tang are all balanced to perfection and topped off by a fresh burst of mint.

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Hoi An really is a shoppers idea of heaven. There are around 500 tailors in town which is a huge amount considering that the population is only around 130,000. When I think of tailors back home, I just think of rich men getting suits made or simple amendments like getting your pants taken up or a dress taken in for a wedding. Here, they can make anything you can dream of. If I were to bring a photo from a magazine of any top, skirt, dress, suit, pants – anything- they would be able to take my measurements and create it for me in the material that I’ve chosen within 48 hours. It really is incredible and the same goes for shoes, belts and other accessories. If I was heading home after the tour where I could store all my beautiful new clothes I would have gone absolutely nuts but as we are settling in a town where it rarely gets cooler than 30 degrees, unfortunately it didn’t make a lot of sense. Still I did manage to buy a few things and Tom had several shirts made plus a couple pairs of shoes (100% leather handmade shoes for $35US each!). I picked a cute brown suede skirt off the rack that barely made it over my bum and unfortunately they’d run out of the material. I gave them a day though and came back to find that they’d magically let it out to fit me. No diet necessary here!

The town is pumping during the day with tourists shopping but as dusk falls, the lanterns are lit and locals come out to hang at the street stalls having dinner and drinking bia. There was still a real holiday vibe in town because of Tet and we stumbled across some sort of amusement park that had games of bingo (or something that resembled bingo) and other carnival side show type stalls. There was also an incredible lantern display alongside the river. Some of them were stunning and others just too bizarre. Check out this one- yes that is a snake dressed as a sailor and wielding a rifle, naturally.

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The town really is at its most beautiful at night but the festivities don’t last long. At around 10pm it feels like everyone vanishes and the only people left standing are the flyer droppers for the back packer bars along the river. We received plenty of these at dinner and they don’t mince words

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A couple bars actually offered free drinks between 9 and 1am so that they would look like the busiest bar in town (the face thing again). None of us were that keen to risk the spirits that they used in these (which would no doubt be severely diluted anyway) but at least we know there is a job for us in Hoi An if the teaching thing doesn’t work out! We spoke to a few other westerners who were peddling the flyers and they said it’s actually not bad work for a short amount of time. Most get paid around $10US per night for four hours work plus a healthy amount of alcohol to supplement the income (and sometimes free accommodation also). Not the most glamourous of jobs but a great way to fund a few weeks in the place as the wages would more than cover your expenses.

The next day in Hoi An we signed up for a bike tour. Despite some hairy steering issues early on, I didn’t manage to kill myself or cause any serious accidents- yippee! The tour was awesome and like the bikes allowed us to reach places we would never have thought to venture to. We rode into a bunch of vege gardens and saw a crowd of people cheering on two women who were harvesting. It looked like a race but we were told that it was actually a ceremony to celebrate the first harvest of the season. They grew all sorts of vegetables and herbs there in beautifully arranged gardens.

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It was quite bizarre because as we were standing amongst this agricultural scene we could hear various nokia tunes as all the farmers riding around on bikes were chatting furiously on cell phones. One of the little farm houses was pumping out electro tunes which didn’t really fit with the scene either. It’s these little reminders that keep you in the modern world as much of Vietnam really does seem like from another time. Earlier that morning we dropped off some laundry to a modest local house down the road from our hotel. The little boy sitting in a hammock out the front was watching You Tube videos on an iPad. It was an odd scene.

After the vege gardens we rode through more farm land and stopped for a buffalo ride (I declined after my experience on an elephant, it just feels a bit humiliating for the animal to be honest!). The first member of our group jumped on and triggered a massive bowel movement in the buffalo which was probably the highlight of that experience.

Next we stopped at a beach where a few of us braved the water (only the kiwis funnily enough) and got caught in a massive downpour. A sign of things to come in the rainy season I guess. Once the weather cleared we biked to a river boat that took us for a cruise. This was great and we were all really excited when we came across a couple of women fishing. They had such strength casting the nets out, it was really impressive. Then our tour guide told us that they weren’t fishing at all but that it was purely for our cameras. After we took our shots they sidled up to the boat trying to get us to pay for their fish that smelt more than a few days old. We all declined but gave them a tip for their troubles. Pretty clever ploy really, the Vietnamese are very resourceful people. Here’s the money shot:

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The night following the bike ride we ended up having the best meal of the trip so far. The place is called Bale Well and I highly recommend it. There’s only one dish so you don’t order, they simply plonk plate after plate in front of you on a long aluminium bench, slap a bit of newspaper on your lap as a napkin (which becomes the most crucial part of the meal) and then the hosts come along and show you how it’s done. There are spring rolls, rice pancakes filled with egg and sprouts that taste like tacos, green salad, noodles, various meat kebabs and more vegetables that somehow all need to be squeezed into a round piece of wafer thin rice paper that you roll and dip into the most amazing peanut sauce with chilli. It’s the most delicious and fun experience with everyone leaning over each other and getting messy! The hosts are classic and go around the table trying to get people to neck their beers in one go. It really is dinner and a show for $5US.

After dinner we had cocktails at a funky little place called Q bar which was more expensive than most but a cool place (the bonus was that they were playing the original Godzilla film on big screens). We had our signature Long Island Iced Teas for a quarter of the price back home. The rest of the group then went home but we felt like continuing on so spent a while at a typical backpacker joint (as the rest of Hoi An was asleep by this time). We were quite merry by the end and only $10 poorer so it wasn’t too bad. Our night was topped off by a Xe Om (motorbike taxi) ride back to the hotel. We’ve since learnt that we paid at least double what we should have but he sang the whole way home in pouring rain which made for quite the memorable experience.

Gearing myself up to sharing a not so pleasant experience from Hoi An. Will update soon!

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