Vietnam: Hoi An

Though I was quite sad to be leaving Dalat, I was excited to be going somewhere very different again: next stop was Hoi An. Not quite psyched up enough for the direct 20-hour bus between the two, I merged bus and train by getting the bus down to Nha Trang on the coast, and picking up the north-south train line from there. The journey down was a little hairy as they’re windy mountain roads, and we were immersed in fog and cloud for a while – so thick you couldn’t see more than about 5m out! Luckily the driver took it very slowly, and before long we emerged to a beautiful mountainous landscape. We wound down towards the coast, and for once, luck was on my side and I didn’t get travel sickness. Hurrah.

I had 11 hours to kill in Nha Trang between bus arrival and train departure. I’d decided not to spend any time in the city as it’s very touristy and developed, a big beach resort curiously popular with Russians. I used some of this time to pop back to hospital by doctor’s orders, because apparently that’s just what I do now. A few hours later, armed with some more test results and my 4th course of antibiotics, I headed for the station.

The ‘station’ was a hall with a few seats and a kiosk in the corner, rather than the larger affair I was expecting of a town so popular with tourists, so it was something of a boring and sticky 2-hour wait. The first challenge came in that none of the speaker announcements were in English, and they also have no signs up to tell you which platform is which. The trains also don’t display their destination or direction, which made life that much more difficult. Through the pouring rain I spotted the only other two backpackers at the station and we managed to work out where we were supposed to be before hauling our bags onto our respective carriages.

The sleeper compartments are pretty cozy triple bunks, and I was sharing with 2 Vietnamese families who seemed very much amused by my presence. If you get travel sick, definitely book yourself a bottom bunk which makes for a more stable night – and is also a better spot for stashing luggage. Also pack a sleeping bag liner as they don’t change the sheets between every passenger. It took me a little while to get used to the rocking, but the train wasn’t too noisy and it actually became quite soporific. I drifted off and remember waking briefly at points over the night, but didn’t properly wake up until 6:50 when I was woken by the same Vietnamese song being played over and over again to quiet a fussing baby. Not quite the wake-up call I would have liked, but overall a better journey than what I’d been prepped to expect. I spent the next few hours of the journey reading and watching the countryside fly by before we arrived in Da Nang.

My sleeper train cabin (when I was the only one left!)

 At the station there was the usual rabble of taxi drivers trying to take your bag from you and put you in their car, but I opted to get the bus for a fraction of the price. Two German girls I noticed on the platform were of the same mind, so we donned our anoraks and headed into the rain to find the bus stop. We stood at one for a while before we were shooed down the street by a shopkeeper who told us that despite the clear ‘Da Nang to Hoi An’ sign, that bus did not in fact stop there. We walked further along and managed to flag down the right bus by chance. It might take a while for you to find one, but head for the number 1 bus stops and walk down that main road until you come across a yellow Hoi An bus. It does take a while (it proceeded to take us back to the bus station, further away from where we wanted to be, before setting back out the right way) but is only 30,000₫ if you’re not in a rush. When we eventually got to the hostel we enjoyed a coffee and a nice hot shower after the long overnight journey.

Train grime removed, we zipped up our rain macs and headed for the Hoi An Old Town, the UNESCO site that draws visitors. You buy a ticket for 120,000₫ which is valid throughout your stay in Hoi An, granting you access to the Old Town area and a choice of 5 of its attractions. Keep it on you as throughout my stay they were checking tickets at completely different points. There are various ‘old houses’, ‘communal houses’ and ‘assembly halls’ to explore, as well as the famed Japanese Covered Bridge which houses a small shrine. We wandered through the quaint streets visiting some of these buildings. Whilst they’re the kind of thing I tend to enjoy – striking, wonky, rich in history and character – I was a little disappointed. There is no information posted inside the buildings, so you end up weaving your way through tour groups and not really knowing what you’re looking at. The buildings themselves are definitely interesting culturally and architecturally (with ancient Chinese and Japanese influence through old trading communities), but I would have been grateful for a little more context and detail to supplement what you can see. If you have a little more budget, a tour guide may well be worth it to make the most out of the Old Town. Nevertheless, despite the rain and flood water (the river is still incredibly high from the typhoon a few weeks ago), it was a nice place to just be and observe.

The Japanese Covered Bridge
The Cam Pho Temple

The following day brought more continuous rain. Unable to make the most of the bicycle tours and island boat trips the area also has to offer as a result, I spent another day wandering around the Old Town with the two German girls and a Swedish guy from our hostel. We visited some different buildings, and indulged in a little shopping. Hoi An is a place you could definitely part with a good amount of cash if you have space in your suitcase; it’s the hub of Vietnamese handicrafts and tailoring. The streets are lined with art galleries, stationers, made-to-measure tailors, homeware stores, leather goods sellers and all sorts of other handmade offerings. Be prepared to barter, as the prices they tell you upfront are hugely inflated, particularly in the busiest Old Town streets.

An art gallery in the Old Town

The next day ended up much the same as the wet weather continued, with river and road being one and the same in some parts of the town. I sheltered from the rain by writing some postcards, trying out some coconut coffee and local ‘white rose’ (tasty shrimp dumplings), and doing a little more shopping. Many people make use of the tailoring here to get dresses, suits, coats and various other garments made to measure. However, I lost a lot of weight when I was ill, so by the time my normal weight + 6-months-of-eating-rice weight goes on, I thought anything I had tailored would be unwearable! Instead, I bought myself a top which handily ties up at the back – so has ample capacity for the travel flab of the coming months. I also got myself a knock-off North Face jacket to prep for the cold further North in Vietnam and Laos. Which might be fun trying to fit in my bag.

Post-typhoon riverfront flooding

Something I didn’t get to do in Hoi An is a Vietnamese cooking class. I couldn’t find a group to join and it was very expensive to do solo, but if you can find a fellow chef then Green Bamboo and Morning Glory come highly recommended as cooking class options. The cost is between $30-40 per person.

A Hoi An speciality: ‘white rose’

I did enjoy Hoi An as a tranquil and historic town with nice food and a café culture sort of feel, but I have to say it wasn’t quite as amazing as I’d hoped based on the stories of others. It may well be that the weather tainted my visit a little in preventing (dry) exploration of the surrounding countryside and coastline, but still, it was a nice relaxed few days with some fun people.

I’ll be moving fairly quickly through my next destinations as my visa time is running out, but still hoping to see plenty more Vietnamese history, nature and city life in the coming weeks.

Until next time,

Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 5, including an ‘English-speaking’ guide to one of the Old Town chapels, who spoke no form of English that I’ve ever heard…
Interaction was:
quite hard work when I couldn’t understand a word or glean any information from what was being said, but I was too politely British to ask her to stop/repeat/hand over to someone else. More fool me.

One Woman and her Backpack x

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