Hoi An was once a vibrant trading river port that brought products and Chinese immigrants from all the world. Now, it is mostly a tourist stop justly famous for both tourists and the clothing industry. If you are going to have clothes, shoes, bags or in fact any sort of apparel, made for you in Vietnam then this is the place to have it done. The town is well served by the obligatory Vietnam over-night bus routes, and we entered the north of the city in another of the “crush busses” mentioned before. The crush bus is not any sort of fun and equivalent to a midnight rollercoaster built by an arthritic Albanian octogenarian. After enough hours in such a device you quite lose the fear but never the loathing.
Vietnamese roads are much maligned for being terribly dangerous. This is not strictly true. Yes, compared to the average UK road, these Vietnamese roads are more dangerous, but compared to say driving through an endless desert pursued by homicidal chainsaw wielding bandits while juggling primed hand grenades they will actually come out as “not too bad”.
Twenty hours later we wheeled into Hoi An. Luckily our hotel was steps from the stop and we thankfully crashed down in a nice little room before heading into the town proper for some supper.
Amazing products abound in Hoi An
A locals’ hat / the Chinese house entrance
The official way of visiting Hoi An’s old town is to buy a pass which enables you to exactly 1/3rd of the attractions. I guess the point is to get you to buy another two passes to see the rest, but a quick chat with some locals and a sweep through the Lonely Planet tells you which to bother with. The attractions are split into three types, classical Chinese houses of the rich and wealthy trading families, Local landmarks such as bridges, markets etc and Chinese religious halls.
That’s all. Seriously, the expensive ticket allows you to visit just that.
In fact only one of each per ticket.
I found it strange that anyone would be too excited about seeing a very small covered bridge, even if it has been there for a long time. It is a very small bridge and nothing to write home about, but I was witness to that strange phenomenon that says that anything seen on a holiday instantly becomes interesting and worthwhile. All around me families walked up the bridge, over it, around it, poked their heads into the very small shrine one half way along and repeatedly read the entry in guide books, all while proclaiming that it is,
“Really a lovely bridge.”
“Oh yeah, it really is, lovely atmosphere.”
I mean, I have been to Florence. Stood on the Rialto bridge. Now that’s a bridge to boast about for its atmosphere.
As for Chinese houses, I guess they can be distracting for a few seconds and the local guide/owner gives a good patter about the family having lived there for 8 generations. Then I worked out that she actually meant 3 generations. Her, her father, his father. She was claiming that all her brothers, sister and uncles count as a generation each. The houses are a nice wooden example of an old way to build a Chinese house. They are… quaint.
And the less said about the halls, the better (there is no explanation of anything in them as they are all still in use.)
The entrance to a hall / large incense inside / the Japanese bridge
So why did we spend 4 days in Hoi An and struggle to move on?
Essentially because Hoi An is one of the most picturesque and beautiful places I have ever been. Each step along a street is a step back into a more romantic and classical time as the cobbles speak of lost generations gone before…
All right, the beer was cheap and they had a pool table in one of the bars.
We spent many a morning in the German cafe having a brilliant western breakfast, followed by a stroll around the many craft and art shops. I wondered hard about ordering a suit, but after reading different reports on the internet decided against putting down the money. Suits of marginal quality are very cheap in central London, and I don’t think that one that fits better, but doesn’t last will compete. Shopping however is prime here and if you have no money for something custom (from shoes to bags to clothes) you could tire of the town quickly.
Local wood craft is amazingly high quality / the bright market
We found that the beauty was all in the atmosphere, which Hoi An admittedly has in spades. That relaxed and gentile river flows past with the paddles of ancient boatmen all making their living posing for Westerners, the little streets that narrow and have slippery cobbles. The sounds of the men banging sheet metal into tins (probably for coffee). Nothing too special for a European, but I had a great time all the same. It was charming.
Food wise the fare was mostly western and quite good. It had some very nice bars and some free WIFI.
It also has some good faretrade shops and buying in these helps the local economy much more than buying in a standard tourist shop of imported items. The touting was constant but mild; shouts from shop doorways and friendly hello’s rather than aggressive style chasing you down the street.
After I lost 3 games in a row of pool to Cesca I decided we should move on and we bussed to Hue.
My only fore knowledge of Hue came from a passing reference in an episode of Red Dwarf (a prize to anyone who can name that episode or quote some of it – it was a good one), so I wasn’t expecting much.
Which was lucky really.
Hue is one of those cities that has yet to get its act together. It is much larger than Hoi An and busy as the northern capital of Hanoi, but the tourist quarter was empty of life – the wrong time of year? Moreover, the quality of the food was massively varied. We spied on the menu that one restaurant served the famous Vietnamese red wine along with a cheese platter, so I ordered. The prospect of spending a few tender moments reminding myself of home was dashed on jagged rocks when tasting the red concoction in the glass placed in front of me. I am hardly the world biggest wine snob but even I cannot take drain cleaner mixed with Vimto! I bit down on a piece of what it had been claimed was cheese to take the taste away and yes it did actually do so. Together with most of my teeth. The so called restaurant had served rock hard parmesan as a plate cheese. I also spied that famous delicacy of Laughing Cow nestled behind it melting in the sun.
However, at another restaurant, one night, Cesca and I had a great selection of local dishes. It was a total crap shoot. With that start in mind we made our way into the old part of the city famous for its citadel and former capital of the kings of Vietnam.
Wikipedia notes it as:
“Modeled after the famed Forbidden City of Beijing, the grounds were surrounded by a wall 2 kilometers by 2 kilometers, and the walls were surrounded by a moat. The water from the moat was taken from the Huong River (Perfume River) that flows through Hu?. This structure is called the citadel.
Inside the citadel was the Imperial City, with a perimeter of almost 2.5 kilometers.
Inside the Imperial City was the imperial enclosure called the Purple Forbidden City in Vietnamese, a term that mimics that used by the Chinese for their own Forbidden City. The enclosure was reserved for the Nguyen imperial family. Like its Chinese counterpart, Vietnam’s Purple Forbidden City included many palaces, gates and courtyards.”
Classical looks from a lost kingdom / beautiful wood construction
This had been seriously bombed by the Americans during the war and as yet not put back together. It had some amazing architecture and was an oasis of calm away from the city and its innumerable touts, but it also had nothing in the way of explanation. If i was heading there today I would print out something from the web as nothing is made clear to the visitor at all. What was this hall? Who used it and why? The only explanation I got was from the LP. Now, there are guided tours, and usually I steer well clear of them due to the fact that we got at a very slow pace. However, if you are to get anything out of this place I suggest booking one.
Little details abound on all surfaces
We enjoyed walking around this area with its little pools of water and quiet. It takes some effort to get into it and away from the millions of touts lining all the roads, but I feel it was worth it. It is however, extremely not finished. All the museums were closed for renovations when we were there and I got the impression that Hue might be brilliant in 20 years, but now is nothing too special.
The no lying zone – you have been warned! / Entering the old city
However, no matter how great a city is to visit the amount of touts hammers down the rating. This city has more touts than a single human could possibly handle and they are about as pushy as I have ever encountered (and I have been to Varanassi!). This seriously gets under my skin and I found that I was actually warning people away from Hue for this reason alone. Hue has potential and I can imagine is very busy at different times of the year, however, if you arrive outside these times the hordes descend upon you. A pitty.
After Hue we moved onto the capital and the final leg of our Vietnam adventure – the best is yet to come!