Returning to places for which you hold fond memories always risks a newer, lesser, reality erasing them. This is especially so in Asia where the pace of change can radically alter older parts of city’s where the essential character of a place is to be found. So, with some trepidation we have returned to Vietnam for extended stays at two of our favourite places (Hoi An and Hanoi).
Our hosts in the beautiful historic town of Hoi An (the excellent Rustic Homestay) were puzzled by the length of our stay. However, after visiting 15 cities in just over 8 weeks, we were ready to slow down for two-weeks.
Located halfway down the 1600km (long thin) length of Vietnam, Hoi An sits on the Thu Bon river just a few miles inland from the South China Sea. It dates back to the 15th century when it was an important trading port. Now it’s famed for its well preserved old town comprising ancient wooden buildings and colourful French colonial architecture. It is a must-see place and appears on every tour itinerary for Vietnam.
Arriving at 1am in the morning we were bleary eyed and ready to crash. The following morning, we borrowed some bicycles and set about reacquainting ourselves with the place. Cua Dai beach: Check. Old Town: Check. Can Nam island: Check. Duy Hai fishing village: Check.
Our accommodation was halfway between the beach and Old Town – 2-3km from each so easy to walk or cycle, which we did almost every day, paying off with a visit to the tailors to have Karon’s skirt taken in.
We had arrived in time for the full moon festival. A tourist favourite, this one night sees the Old Town packed with locals and tourists being punted along the river amid hundreds of tiny paper lanterns. It’s a magical site against the brightly lit lanterns that hang across all major streets and along the river.
Of course, we just had to stop at the excellent Hill Station wine bar en route. They have great quality wines and French cheese platters during a happy hour that perfectly matched our travel times into town by bicycle. Or was the trip timed to match happy hour? Hmmm…a honey trap nonetheless.
While in Hoi An we were keen to eat some good street food. Seafood is the local specialty and so one night we downed a few ‘fresh beers’ – the local brew that costs 20p a glass – and went to the central market where there are many food stalls all selling much the same thing. As we approached the door, a rat welcomed us before obligingly scurrying away.
Once inside we sat at an empty stall and ordered some stuffed squid, fried fish and vegetables. Beer was outsourced to the drinks stall next door. Before we could grab our chop sticks a party of large young Chinese tourists from Nanjing descended on the stall squeezing us to the edge. Fortunately, for us if not the stall holder, they only ordered a few snacks which they quickly ate and left.
The food was delicious and plentiful so we had to drink a second round of beers. Just as we were tucking in – boom, out go the lights! With the whole market in darkness, out came all manner of battery powered lighting on every stall in the place. Fortunately, all cooking is done on two-ring bottle gas stoves. We joked that this wasn’t turning out to be an average night!
Unfortunately, the joke didn’t seem so funny when we finally made our way back onto the street only to find it wasn’t just the market building without power. The whole town was pitch black and we had a 3km cycle back to the homestay. We managed to navigate our way to the edge of town by following some young tour guides escorting their party with mobile phones in hand.
The following day we hired a motorbike to ride the 27km to the nearby city of Da Nang. We had always arrived there at the airport but gone straight to Hoi An. This time we were keen to see what the fast-developing city was like. Huge multinational resort hotels are going up everywhere to cater to the emerging Chinese middle class and those with a love of golf.
Danang city is a former French colonial port half way down Vietnam’s coast and sits to the right of the large Da Nang bay opening to the South China sea. With a population of just over one million, it is a sprawling city with no discernible centre.
Danang is a very busy dynamic place with seemingly endless funky coffee shops and small eateries serving the many resort hotels surrounding the city. The city also has two famed markets in the Han market, and worryingly titled, Con markets.
The Han river runs through the city and offers the opportunity to cross some pretty spectacular bridges. In fact, Danang is proud of the nine bridges crossing the river as all but two were built since 1997. Most famous is the fire breathing Rong (Dragon) bridge. Opened in 2013, this (ominously) 666m long six lane bridge is designed to look like a dragon flying over the river. We crossed it and the equally impressive 1850m long Thuan Phuoc suspension bridge on our little moped. The latter no mean feat if you’re a wee bit scared of heights.
On the outskirts of Da Nang city we stopped off at the famous tourist attraction known as Marble Mountain. These five ancient rocky outcrops are home to a series of ancient temples and shrines. The hike up the main one is pretty challenging (the installed lift takes the tourists about one third of the way). We managed to huff and puff our way from shrine to shrine until we’d done them all. The views across the city and along the renowned China Beach were our reward.
Feeling very liberated with the scooter we held onto it for a few more days to explore more widely and, at a decidedly unsociable 4am, the nearby Duy Hai fishing village (quite an eye opener to see how hard the women there work).
Not to say John was like a native with the scooter and cycle, but he did manage to pick up a hitchhiker and deliver her safely home on the latter! It was the least he could do as earlier in the week he himself had hitched a ride into town, and a young guy on his way to work was happy to oblige.
At the end of our leisurely stay in Hoi An we’ve headed northward to the capital city Hanoi. Basing ourselves in the touristy Hoan Kiem district – named after Hoan Kiem lake – we waited patiently for our visas for China to arrive by DHL.
Our top priority while here (after the visas of course) was a decent hairdresser for Karon’s sun scorched hair. We were relaxed about this as we knew there was a Toni & Guy at the other end of the lake. Having arrived there to make an appointment, we found a lady just locking up mid-morning. IT seems the place closed down five months ago!
The online search for an alternative kept leading back to one name – Mr Dinh.
A long walk out through the old quarter took us to a back-street salon that, in truth, didn’t look good. Small, tatty and with just two old chairs and equally old sinks, this was not T&G.
The nearby biker’s café full of vintage and custom bikes and their mean looking riders did little to make us think this was the place to find a top hairdresser.
No sign of Mr Dinh at the salon but a helpful resident of the building telephoned him and put Karon on the phone to explain the renovation required. We returned the following day full of trepidation. It turned out his reputation was well deserved. Mr Dinh is obviously a star hairdresser. Expert in colouring, cutting and styling. Meticulous to a fault he did everything required for a pocket friendly price of just £45. Karon looked terrific (and much relieved).
One of our main reasons for visiting Hanoi was to enjoy the social scene that occurs around Hoan Kiem lake every week day. Photographing it early in the morning was a priority for the photographer among us. The areas surrounding the lake is very popular with tourists, but first thing every morning Hanoian’s reclaim it as their own. It comes alive with fitness classes, dance practice, and old friends catching up on the previous day’s gossip.
While out photographing, John approached two elderly gentlemen to take their picture. It turned out one of them was legendary Hanoi photographer Quang Phung (on the left below). Renowned for his documentation of Hanoi life – especially around Hoan Kiem Lake and the darker side of the city – this sprightly 89 year old and his doctor friend spent some time telling us about Phung’s life and work and dispensing photography advice.
Thankfully, DHL delivered our very expensive China visas to the hotel in Hanoi. Now all we need are hotels and transport to get around China. With English being rarely spoken in the mid-priced hotels we are targeting, this is proving quite a challenge and remains a work in progress, but China here we come.