If you asked a group of travellers what they miss most when they’re on the road, I would guess that the majority would say, unsurprisingly, friends and family. Certainly that is true for us, as is evident as we clamour for bandwidth to Skype home whenever we get a good internet connection! So it came as quite the welcome surprise when I logged on to Facebook to get a message from a couple of our friends from Leicester asking for tips on things to do in Laos-as they were currently in Vietnam and heading over there in a few weeks. I had no idea that they were in Asia at all, and as supreme luck would have it, we were on a collision course. With some excitement we left Hue and made our way to Hoi An for a catch up with some familiar faces!
As is the common theme with my posts, I have to allude to the journey once again. What makes this reference different is that there is no hint of a mention of discomfort, terror or confusion! For the first time in over a month, we were going to be basking in the wonder of train travel once again, and boy what a luxury it was. The Reunification express stretches all the way from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh, right down the coast of Vietnam. The views are spectacular, and the trains are clean, spacious and generally lovely. We were like excited children, overjoyed at the prospect of leaving white knuckle bus journeys in the dim and distant past…..Well, until we return to Cambodia at least!
From Hue to Da Nang took just 5 hours, and then a 30 minute taxi to Hoi An-simple. We were fortunate enough to bump into a South African couple who were heading in the same direction, and so managed to get a good deal on the fare, and as it turns out-make some friends that we would bump into at various points throughout our time in Vietnam.
Appropriately Hoi An actually translates as ‘peaceful meeting place’, and the ancient town is yet another UNESCO World heritage site to add to the ever growing list on our travels. Checked in and freshened up, we headed into the centre to explore what was promised to be a well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th century. It used to be the largest harbour in south East Asia, and as such retains architectural influences from many of the Japanese, Dutch and Chinese spice and ceramic merchants that once resided there. As you can imagine, this used to be an area of incredible wealth and upon discovering the old town, it still holds the grandeur and charm of an extremely affluent area…Although now you’re more likely to find tailors and restaurants than spice and ceramic merchants. The town and harbour have remained pretty much unchanged for the last 200 years, and they certainly don’t disappoint. It is absolutely picture perfect, along with a number of temples, communal houses, merchant houses and other historical points of interest to explore. Even more spectacular is the way that the town comes alive in the evenings, with lanterns lighting the streets and people sending candles to sail on boats in the harbour…It’s a very enchanting place!
Suitably dazzled by the surroundings, we then had the fortune to just bump into Josh and Aimee on our first evenings’ exploration, before we got the chance to actually plan meeting up-and so headed out for drinks and dinner and a good old chinwag. One of the things that is great about meeting up with people you already know is that you don’t engage in the standard ‘opening patter’ that is inevitable when meeting fellow travellers for the first time. Not that it isn’t great to share stories with those that you meet, just that sometimes it’s nice not to have to give people your back story! By the end of the evening, and a fair few ‘Fresh Beers’ (local beer that is brewed that day)-we decided to book ourselves onto a cooking class, and also a lantern making class….Hoi An was most certainly rubbing off on us quick time!
The following day was an absolute blast, it started in the right manner when we bumped into a guy in some form of ceremonial dress in the street-Josh and Aimee being experts in fancy dress barely struggled to contain themselves! Pictures snapped and it was onto the lantern making which turned out to much more fun than I expected, however now we find ourselves carrying round a couple of these lanterns on our travels-real useful I tell thee!
Moving on to something a little more practical, at the cookery course we learned to cook spring rolls, a crispy noodle dish, banana leaf curry and a hotpot-all of which were fantastic, sure to be attempted once we grace our homelands again. Rather more useful than lanterns to impress friends and family back home…”Oh this dish, I learned this when I was travelling in South East Asia don’t you know” (read with appropriate smug voice)
It was fantastic to get to explore the town with Josh and Aimee, a real giggle. Props to Josh for introducing us to the most incredible Vietnamese sandwich (Banh Mi) shop. It may sound like an odd thing to rave about, when you think about Vietnamese food, baguettes aren’t necessarily the first thing that pop into your head, however Banh Mi are very much a Vietnamese speciality (albeit initially influenced by the French). At it’s most basic they are baguettes filled with pate, pork, pickles, chilli, salad and other unknown entities to the uneducated Westerner (by that I refer to myself)…Delicious!
The next morning Josh and Aimee set off to continue their travels, we were left with a day to do a little more exploring of the old town, and try to avoid spending too much money in the shops here. If it weren’t for the fact that we have a long time travelling ahead of us, for sure we would have bought an extra backpack and had a whole load of clothes and shoes made-as well as kitting ourselves out in some ‘North Face’ gear! As it is, that just isn’t practical and so our bank account survived without any significant damage. We did buy a ‘North Face’ bag (after much research on the internet), not for extra space-but to replace our other battered backpack. Top tip here is to note that you are not buying genuine ‘North Face’ products, but you are buying a cheap, high quality imitation. The standard does vary, so just try to forget about the brand, shop around, and find something that will work for you.
Don’t come here expecting to have the place to yourself though, it is a fairy tale picture perfect town and as such it is extremely popular with tourists. It definitely isn’t a hidden gem, but it’s absolutely worth the effort.