Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hoi An, Hue, on our way north to Hanoi

Jan 14 to 18, 2010 (by Swiss)

With Nha Trang done and done, it was time for a trip to Hoi An and Hue. I get to write about these towns since Cyndi and Matt Alderson would be joining us after that in Hanoi and it was decided that Jason should have the honor to write about their arrival. Our stay in Hoi An and Hue was intended to be short as we would be re-visiting these towns with Matt and Cyndi at a later date. Stop 1, Hoi An, is probably best known for its Old Town and as a place where you can pretty much have any clothing article custom made for you. This includes suits, jackets, shirts, ties, shoes, and whatever else you desire. Hue, 4 hours north, is a larger town known for its Citadel and with some decent sight seeing and offers day trips to the DMZ north of town.

New Town, New Friends, New Suit?
If there is one thing that I've gotten quite good at on this trip it's sleeping on public transport. Mind you, it's not good sleep, but it's sleep nonetheless. And given my anti-social tendencies, it's a nifty way to avoid unnecessary conversations on buses, planes, and trains. This, coupled with a fresh download of "Sicko" on my laptop, would guarantee a nice, relaxing, and isolated 11 hour sleeper bus ride from Nha Trang to Hoi An.

Jason, more social and less fortunate in the public transport sleeping department, coupled with a lack of space on his hard drive, quickly got busy socializing with Carl Jiggens, an "English" bloke who likes to talk a lot. It became clear to me the following morning, after a slightly longer ride due to yet another flat tire, that Carl would become our new team England for the next couple of days. In his defense, he actually is pretty cool.

Upon arriving in rainy Hoi An, we quickly set out to find a place to stay, ultimately settling on a spot where we managed to get a three person room for 12 USD. Being that it was sometime before 9 am at the time, our room was not yet ready, so we dropped off our bags and headed off to find breakfast and a suit for Carl. Breakfast was consumed at Lame (pronounced Lah-Meh) and included a sampling of Jasons "must have" dish of Cao Lau. Cao Lau is a specialty of Hoi An and is special in part because the noodle portion of the dish is prepared with "special" water from a local well that probably is special somehow. Or something like that. Point is, it sounds special, and anybody who knows Jason also knows that it would be right up his alley. I sampled some the following day, and it was actually quite tasty. Special indeed. Special.

My first bowl of Cau Lao

Next on the list was Carl's suit, which involved us visiting a couple of different tailors, with custom made suit prices ranging from around 100 USD (3 piece suit) to well north of $300 depending on material choices. It was quite amusing watching Carl interact and haggle with the various sales people, often laced with humour (this one's for you, British people) and English courtesy. Given he was seeking what likely would end up as a "single use" suit for an upcoming wedding, he decided to forgo the super expensive shops and settled on a place close to our hotel. They quoted him a 3 piece suit, tailored shirt, and two ties for USD 160. We were to return after showers at the hotel for the fitting. The fitting, final color selection, and attempts at haggling would take another 2-3 hours, with multiple occasions of the very cute saleswoman hitting Carl for his smart-ass comments/haggling tactics. To say that it was more fun than watching a TV comedy is probably somewhat of an understatement. But he eventually got it all squared away, excluding the ties, which would be postponed until the shirt and suit were ready the following day.

The remainder of the day involved some shopping around, enjoying excellent banh canh (not sure about the name...update to come) at a random street stall, and an ok dinner at a nice little restaurant in town, where we were joined by the fattest dog we've seen thus far.

If I recall correctly, I think it was on this day where we ran into a couple from the UK (aka "THE UK couple") we had met in Saigon earlier. I only bring this up because, for some eerie reason, we managed to run into them in almost every single town we've visited in Vietnam. It has also prompted me to think about the probability of this happening. I haven't crunched any numbers, but considering popular routes, weather, foreign-centric quarters in cities, and the fact that whities stick out quite a bit over here, it's more likely than you'd think to randomly run into fellow travelers you've met before.

Extensions, Scooters, and Old Friends
Our original plan was to arrive in Hanoi a couple of days early to arrange an extension of our Vietnam visa, which was conveniently set to expire two days prior to our planned departure in Saigon at the end of the month. This would unfortunately limit our stay in Hue and extend our stay in Hanoi. So Carl suggested we should see about getting the extension done in Hoi An, citing the tried and true law of dollars = rubber stamp. If successful, this would allow us an extra day in Hue and therefore the ability to check out the DMZ.

Sure enough, after inquiring at our hotel Friday morning, the staff managed to take care of our extension on the same day for USD 20 (quite in line with prices we found online.)

Cao Lau was consumed for breakfast, the tailor was visited for final adjustments/punches, and scooters were then rented for a visit to the cloudy beach.

We had learned that our friend Jeremy, who we had met in Thailand, was in town with one of his friends, and they wanted to check out a restaurant near the beach for lunch. Sounded like a plan. But first, cock fighting:

The above is a scene of a cock fighting match we stumbled upon on the way to the beach. We're not sure if it was real or practice, but the claws of the animals were taped to avoid injury. It was interesting to watch for a bit, although I'm sure it's considered a pretty controversial activity back home. Here, not so much. FYI, no cocks appeared to be harmed as we were watching.

It is here that it's probably appropriate to mention that our lucky weather streak is coming to an end. Starting with the last day in Nha Trang, the weather has steadily been heading south as we are working our way north. So beach day turned into looking at water and clouds day, me purchasing a bathing suit but not wearing it, and moving then on to consuming a seafood lunch with Jeremy and his friend from New York. The lunch was so-so, and included shrimp, fish (grilled and steamed), as well as an order of steamed squid.

Beach day was wrapped up by some "ca phe sua nong" (hot Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk) on the beach before cruising back in town.

Carl, who seems strangely proficient in meeting American travelers, promptly ran into two other Californians he had met earlier in his travels. They joined Jeremy, his friend, Jason, Carl, and myself for drinks. It would be the first time we've had that many Yankees (six) at one table since we've started traveling nearly six months ago. Creepy. Jason and I excused ourselves for an hour to call our travel agent in order to finalize our flight itinerary for the second half of our trip. Up until now, we were only booked through India, so some more spending was in order. Our ETA in the US is now officially set for Jul 7, 2010. Welcome parties appreciated. I'll be in Detroit, Lawton in Chicago.

Hue and re-living puberty
Our bus for Hue departed early the next day, so we once again packed our bags and groggily got ready for the four hour ride. I awoke with a slightly hoarse voice that would deteriorate to a full pre-pubescent squeak over the course of the day. Before we got on the bus, we played a quick game of "spot the Canadian"...

...and off we were.

We arrived safely in Hue, got a free ride to one of the hotels which ended up being full, moved down the street, and 10 minutes later booked a decent $15 room with breakfast and wifi. We went on to book a tour to the DMZ and promptly sought some food. That food was found at Phuong Nam Restaurant, which would become our go-to spot due to great food at very reasonable prices.

The remainder of the day was spent exploring town, visiting the market, having a crummy beer on the river, and scoring me some meds in hopes to revert my voice to post-pubescent acoustic levels.

Contrary to its name, Sunday yet again offered very little sun. We had to be ready for the DMZ tour at 6am, which involved lots of driving (2 hours each way) and "free breakfast" for starters. Now, I think it's fair to say that we've become quite seasoned travelers, but our breakfast experience proved once more that you are never too old to learn. To our amusement, our "free" breakfast was free, but didn't include drinks, which of course were quite overpriced. Hehe, those cheeky bastards got us. We will be sure to ask next time we get a free meal as to whether this includes something to drink :)

The tour itself was ok, albeit a bit heavy on the driving and light on the actual sight seeing. As with Laos, there are a lot of problems with UXOs here, a theme we've noticed throughout the last couple of months. According to our guide, 7-8 people per month die due to these devices, and a bunch of NGOs are currently working on helping to clear them. Sights included rockpile mountain (a former US communications stronghold)....

...remnants of the Ho Chi Minh trail....

...Khe Sanh (an old army base)...

Swiss takes his hand at a gun

...all of which had a fair share of pro-Vietnam/communist propaganda (another theme we've noticed quite a bit of lately.)

The highlight of the tour were the Vinh Moc tunnels, which contrary to the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon, were civilian tunnels used during the war as bomb shelters for the locals. As such, they were dimensionally larger compared to their counterparts in the south. They included living quarters, water wells, even a maternity ward.

According to our guide, the longest time spent underground was five consecutive days (LP states as much as ten days.) There are over 100 (going by memory here) of such systems built over the course of multiple years by patriotic citizens who stayed put during the war. So enjoy some of the pictures below, including the "alarm bell" in the first picture.

Carl pulled Swiss out

The ride back into town included the visitation of a couple of monuments, the north/south border (17th parallel) including loudspeakers to blast some propaganda southward, and was generally quite uneventful and reasonably dry.

We booked our bus ride to Hanoi for the next evening, for which Carl would join us once more, before heading out to dinner at our standard spot. It was quickly decided that we would come back there once more the following day to score some take away bun thit nuong for the overnight bus ride with guaranteed crummy/overpriced food. We also managed to again run into "THE UK couple" while perusing the streets for a bit of wifi.

Monday started with my tradition of checking NFL (playoff) scores, before getting all our ducks in a row (read: packing) and killing time waiting for the 5pm bus to Hanoi. It was a fun couple of days, and we shall return. Maybe the weather will improve also. Maybe.

PS: Apologies for all the grammatical errors in this post. I've been writing this on a bus and frankly am too lazy to fix them :) This is mainly for Maryellen, from whom I'm expecting an email with corrections shortly.


Selah said...

Just do it Alvin-- we're all expecting it anyway!

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