Before our sea-legs had even worn off, we were boarding an overnight bus due south for Hoi An. The journey lasted 12 hours through the night until we made a pit-stop in Hue (pronounced Hu-way), which was “on the Hue.” 😉 It was a town we wanted to see, but were told it didn’t require much time. Rather than going through the hassle of finding a place to stay, unpacking, then touring the town for a day or two, we opted for a 5-hour layover from 8am-1pm. Then, another bus would take us the rest of the way to Hoi An, another 4 hours.
Hue was a major city of interest during the Vietnam War. It was conquered by the Viet Cong and held for 24 days, during which over 1,000 people were killed for sympathizing with the south. Subsequently, the Americans bombed the city in order to take it back. The main attraction is the Imperial Citadel, comprised of temples, pavilions, walls, gates, and moats. We rented bicycles and cruised around town for a few hours. The sun was blazing hot and the sites weren’t all that interesting. We were glad we decided not to stay the night.
We arrived in Hoi An around 5pm. The streets buzzed with quaint shops and restaurants that stand no more than 3 stories high, giving a feel of stifled development. The Old Town is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 2,000 years of history. It was a major port city in the 16th and 17th centuries, which makes it quite picturesque as the sun sets over the river. Our hotel was a bit more than we were used to paying, but for $19/night it included buffet breakfast, A/C, bicycles, and a swimming pool. Most other accommodations wouldn’t budge lower than $15, even with seasoned bargaining skills. (and that’s without all that other cool stuff!)
The main attraction in Hoi An is getting custom-made clothes. There are over 400 tailors within a few square kilometers. Literally, more than half of the stores we passed were ready to make us a new wardrobe. It was a bit of a struggle to find the right shop to do quality work for a good price. Everyone wants your business and it’s hard to know who to trust. There are reviews online for a few of the reputable ones, but they use that to their advantage and charge more for it. We also found some of the shops to be a bit pushy and urged us to commission more clothes before even seeing their work.
After a couple days of research (and some more effective bargaining) we settled on Thu Van to make a suit for me and 2 dresses for Gabriella for $150. I picked out a grey Italian fabric made of cashmere and wool with black accents on the pockets and maroon silk lining. Gabriella found images of her dresses in catalogues, then tweaked the specifications to her liking and selected the fabrics to be used. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to get another one, especially for that price, but one suit is good for now. The experience of having custom clothing made can easily get carried away. I overheard a conversation of one woman asking someone for a box to mail things home. When asked how big it needed to be, she said, “Well, I have 3 winter jackets and about 20 skirts.” 20 skirts?! Some shops displayed written testaments from past customers that walked away with over 30 articles of clothing! I’m sure it’s great for people that are going home soon and have a job that requires them to wear dress clothes, but I don’t envision myself in that position (either of those positions) anytime soon.
While our clothes were being made, we used the bicycles to ride down to the beach about 5km away. I was pretty impressed with how clean and scenic it was. A thin forest of palm trees provided shade, then an open space of white sand lead to the South China Sea. The water was clean, calm, and warm. There were also a few islands in the distance and mountains off to the north that supplemented the scenic surrounding.
Back at the hotel, we went for a relaxing swim one evening. The pool was small, but I dipped under and pushed off for a gentle glide from one side to the other. Waiting for me at the other end was a bench extending out from the wall that I failed to see. Although my hands were out in front, they went under the bench and my forehead bumped the concrete underwater. It wasn’t a hard impact, but it was enough to split the skin right at my hairline. I immediately felt blood on my face and Gabriella calmly told me get out of the pool. As we went into the lobby, a French family was just coming in and the mother was a nurse. She said her friend is a doctor and he’s right behind. Their kids were immediately interested in the action and the hotel attendant was panicking about closing the wound (he offered scotch tape). I was quickly surrounded by 10 people all vying for a glimpse of my bloodied face. The professionals looked at the gash and helped to stop the bleeding, but suggested I get stitches. Luckily, the hospital was only a 2-minute walk down the street and I was seen right away. Within an hour after the accident I had 3 stitches in my forehead and was back at the hotel. Although this type of incident is never pleasant, I couldn’t imagine being in a better place with more helpful people. One week later, Gabriella was cringing as she removed the stitches in our hotel room.
From Hoi An, we continued south to Nha Trang. After the overnight bus to Hue we swore we wouldn’t do that again, but here we were, boarding another 12-hour bus at 7pm. The ride actually wasn’t that bad, but it’s difficult to get any kind of sleep when the bus is veering in and out of traffic and honking the horn every few seconds. We arrived around 5:30am to the reddish sunrise over the Sea in a beach town buzzing with early exercisers.
Nha Trang is supposed to be the beach town in Vietnam. While the beach was nice, it was also very crowded. Our hotel was about a block away and right in the heart of the tourist district. Because of this, every time we stepped outside we were constantly approached by salesmen and women offering books, sunglasses, cigarettes, and fruit, which continued on the beach as well. Promoters stand outside places of business and hand out flyers all day long (my least favorite form of advertising). We couldn’t walk 10 seconds without uttering “no thank you” to someone. The restaurants typically place their menu outside to allow customers the chance to look it over before deciding where to eat. Every time I wanted to glance at a menu (where there wasn’t someone handing out a flyer), an employee would rush out from the restaurant to tell me to come inside or help me flip the pages while making their best pitch in broken English. Even after politely explaining we’re “just looking” they would stand over us and stare at the menu, patiently waiting our decision. Some would even begin to read the menu! Needless to say, this got old fast and I had to resist my rising temper a few times when I simply wanted to be left alone to decide. I know it’s a different culture, but the constant barrage of sales had me longing for a hoodie and headphones.
We spent 4 nights in Nha Trang alternating between the A/C of our room and the sunshine on the beach. We walked to the aquarium one day, but it was nothing like the museums back home. The nightlife was livelier than we expected, and peace and quiet was fleeting. The barrage of people trying to get my dong every time I stepped outside brought unnecessary stress to what was supposed to be a place to recharge our batteries. Fortunately, we found that when we went south to Mui Ne, which prompted us to stay a little longer than expected.
p.s. Dong is Vietnamese currency. Get your mind outta the gutter!