Hoi An is one of the more popular tourist cities in Central Vietnam and every foreigner that we’ve met in Vietnam has been there or is going there. My cousin went last year and found that a day trip was enough time to explore the historical spots, so we took her advice and headed there on Saturday afternoon with plans to stick around until evening to see the weekend lantern festival. From Da Nang you can get to Hoi An by tourist bus (Sinh Cafe Tourist 70,000 VND), taxi (350,000 – 400,000 VND), motorbike (price depends on if you’re driving or hiring a driver), or local bus (15,000 – 20,000 VND).
We read plenty of exciting stories on the interwebs about foreigners trying to take the local bus and getting charged 5x more than locals, about 100,000 VND, and occasionally getting thrown off the bus with their big bags if they didn’t pay the “official” fare demanded by the bus attendant. Despite the potential fare conflict, we decided to try our luck with the local bus. It’s really cheap (if you don’t get the foreigner rate) and it helped that the bus stop was across the street from our hotel. I also liked the challenge of trying to pass as a local. We waited for the yellow bus with the Hoi An sign and hopped on from the back entrance as it slowed down for us. The man said “Hoi An?” and I replied “Hoi An!” like a local who took the bus to Hoi An every day. The fare collector was a woman who sat across from the back door and looked more like another passenger rather than a city transportation employee. I handed her 30,000 VND for me and Kanako and she handed it back and said 40,000 VND. Woohoo!!! She thought I was a local and didn’t try to charge me 200,000 VND! Either that or she thought I looked really tough and she didn’t want to mess with me. That’s probably it.
Once we arrived in Hoi An we hopped on the back of a couple of motor bikes and headed to lunch. We tried the traditional Hoi An dishes of fried wontons, white rose, and my Quang noodle dish. The white rose was a dumpling in fish sauce, the fried wonton was flat and topped with a shrimp cocktail mix, and the my Quang noodles are like the ones I talked about in my Da Nang food post. All three dishes were quite tasty, especially the fried wonton. We had a tasting menu at Miss Ly’s restaurant which was good, but a tad pricey for Vietnamese food.
We’re not big fans of tourist attractions in most cities. They’re usually really crowded, overpriced, and just downright tacky sometimes. Da Nang was no different, but sometimes you just have to see/do certain things when you’re visiting a particular spot. I mean, these spots do become popular for a reason. They might not be as awesome as TripAdvisor would have you believe, but some are entertaining enough. I still think eating is the best thing you can do in Da Nang, but here are a few other worthwhile things we did there.
Marble Mountains: These aren’t really mountains; they’re more like hills. The cluster of five hills is made up of marble and limestone and is a short ride by motorbike or taxi from Da Nang city center. You can explore the small caves, climb up one of the mountains, and then buy a giant marble statue of your favorite Buddha for a pittance! I read that they recently banned direct extraction from these mountains now that they’ve realized how quickly they are losing their valuable natural resources. These mountains and caves are fun to visit if you have no chance to see the bigger caves in Vietnam. The cost of admission is pretty low so it’s a good attraction for budget travelers too. There’s also an elevator to the top of one of the mountains for an extra cost. Who builds an elevator in a mountain? The Vietnamese do! We didn’t take it and you probably don’t need to either. It’s really not that bad of a climb. You can also see the product of these marble mountains if you walk along Bach Dang Street where they have oddly placed marble statues all along the street.
At a non-descript cafe on the side of a non-descript street in Da Nang, I sipped a cà phê sữa đá and thought of a recent conversation I had with my mother before leaving for Southeast Asia. I was having a coffee then as well, and I had mentioned that caffeine tends to keep me up at night if I have it too late in the day. My mother made an incredulous face and said, “That’s because you don’t work hard enough. If you work hard like your father and I do, you can fall asleep right away.” To me, that was a strange thing to say because my mother doesn’t work (and has never really worked), unless you call unnecessary clothes shopping a form of employment.*
So there we were in Da Nang, proving her point. We were getting tired of constantly bouncing from one place to another and the Southeast Asian heat followed us around, quietly beating us into submission. A friend in Saigon suggested Da Nang as a quiet place to hang our hats for a while so we trusted her. The city itself doesn’t look like anything special, and is as unassuming as they come. But look a little closer, and there is an empty, beautiful beach lining its eastern coast, a lush peninsula to the north and some damn good food.
We did the required touristy stuff like checking out the Bodhisattva of Mercy on Son Tra peninsula (we called her “The Lady”) and spending the day exploring the Marble Mountains. While both of these places were pretty interesting in their own ways, what we enjoyed doing the most was chilling by ourselves during the day and getting the more local experience with our new friends at night.
Beaching was very much on our list of priorities so we made a beeline for a private beach on My Khe. Well, not really a beeline, because we skirted around the main entrance to the hotel and entered through the side entrance to the beach like a couple of sketchy mofos… I guess we kind of are. Don’t get me started on privatizing beaches in these developing countries. We had lunch at an overpriced but decent restaurant next to the beach, soaked up the cleanliness of it all and pretended for a moment that we were guests of this overpriced resort.
Da Nang has been one of my favorite places for food in Vietnam. The food is varied with more complex flavors and less fish-sauce-based than Southern Vietnamese cuisine. Da Nang wasn’t in our original plans as we were researching a beach town in Vietnam, but we met a Couch Surfer in Saigon who suggested that we go to Da Nang instead of Nha Trang or Mui Ne. We’re so glad she pointed us to this city because if there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s eating. The second thing we’re pretty damn good at is lazily lounging on a tropical beach all day. I’ll talk more about that in another post.
Seafood: Da Nang is a beach town which means you can get ridiculously fresh seafood and since it’s Vietnam you can get the ridiculously fresh seafood at ridiculously cheap prices. Seafood restaurants line the street across from beach and they are packed every night. These are your typical no-frills Vietnamese eateries with little plastic chairs and stainless steel tables, but the simply-prepared seafood is better than anything you’d pay 10x more for anywhere else. There are also large, well-lit, banquet-sized restaurants that serve seafood dishes for a higher price tag, but we didn’t try those places.
We have a good reason why we try to avoid bus travel through Vietnam, and I was once again reminded of this as we started our very long day of bus and train rides from Dalat to Danang via Nha Trang. On this particular ancient bus, we were blessed with a schizo driver who crawled up the mountain roads at a snail’s pace and then hurtled down steep windy paths, careening around the bends and throwing the passengers from side to side. It felt like we were being shaken around in a tin can. The driver honked incessantly, warning mopeds in front of him that he would kill them if they didn’t get out of his way. That’s Vietnamese driving for you, where the biggest vehicle rules the road and pedestrians are the lowest on the food chain.
By the time we stopped for lunch, the inside of the bus smelled like burning brake pads. When the driver ambled back to his bus, everyone scrambled back on after him as if the bus would leave without them. We shot down the mountain past small waterfalls before we swerved and stopped to avoid hitting a mother and son on a moped. They watched in stunned silence from the side of the road as our bus took off again.
When I first told my ex-refugee mother that I was going back to the country that she escaped from over three and a half decades ago, she kindly suggested that I go elsewhere. My parents escaped from Vietnam in 1978 with me and my younger sister and even though my mother has returned a couple of times many years ago, she wasn’t crazy about what became of her country and was especially put off by the constant scamming of foreigners and Việt Kiều — Vietnamese diaspora. I knew that scamming would occur, but coming from NYC where tourists get scammed thousands of dollars, I wasn’t too worried about being scammed 50 cents by a coconut juice vendor. Being scammed more than a couple of bucks is practically grand larceny here. Although nobody likes to be scammed and the principle of the matter is more important than the financial loss in some cases, these things happen and you just have to go with the flow sometimes.
I know my mother was more concerned about us being physically harmed by a seemingly friendly local who offers to take us on a pedicab ride and then drives us to a back alley where his friends will be waiting to steal all of our worldly goods. This is a motherly concern and the only reason she can express this concern about Vietnam is because she has been here herself. She doesn’t realize that the violent crime rate is very low here and that we were probably more likely to get shot in Brooklyn than mugged in Vietnam. Being the good child that I am, I humored her and told her that I wouldn’t take candy from Vietnamese strangers. Unless, of course, the stranger offered me sweet, hot corn milk on a cool night in Da Lat.
The friendly stranger that we met is a young university student studying English and the chance meeting was especially lucky for us because we were debating whether or not to join an overpriced Da Lat tour the next day. We had just finished dinner at a local spot and were walking home because we couldn’t hail a taxi. We had fresh fruit back at the hotel room and I wasn’t planning on having dessert, but that’s a lie that I tell myself on a daily basis. As we were walking back we stopped and stared at various food vendor carts while the locals stared back at us because I guess they’ve never seen people staring at a meatball sandwich vendor. If only I could get paid to stare at food all day.
There is nothing more pleasant than going on a full-day group tour by bus and boat while suffering from stomach issues. Uncle Ho’s Revenge, Vietnam Vengeance, Saigon Squirts, call it what you will, but it sucks ass. Literally.
I woke up that morning feeling sick and fully prepared to abandon N and let her go on the tour alone, but I didn’t want her to be all by her lonesome so I muscled up every ounce of willpower that wasn’t flushed down the toilet and ran for the bus before it left without me. A heavily made-up Vietnamese tourist took multiple selfies of herself a few seats in front of us but I felt too drained to photobomb them.
It was only after we got off the bus 1.5 hours later by the Mekong Delta that I realized that the majority of our fellow tourists were Korean. I don’t know why but besides our group, there were a billion Koreans on the Delta that day, with the men wearing colorful hiking apparel and the women all covered up to protect themselves from their worst enemy: the sun.
After tourists snatched up the $1 cone hats to wear in the sun, the tour guide led us onto a riverboat which was surprisingly smooth and pleasant. The seats were comfortable and I gradually started feeling a little better by the time we got to our first stop, a rice paper-making workshop. I was busy making sure there was a suitable bathroom (just in case) while the tour guide explained the process of making rice paper, which seems pretty easy.
We had about ten minutes of them trying to sell us bags of toasted rice paper crisps in different flavors, and I watched from the periphery as the selfie-snapping wife of a middle-aged Vietnamese couple — dressed like they were going clubbing immediately after the tour — ignored her adorable little son and generously opened her wallet for the first of many times that day.
Group tours are always tricky for us and for the most part, we go home disappointed despite our forced optimistic outlook throughout the day. I think it’s because we’re a hybrid kind of traveler. We don’t need luxury hotel accommodations and can rough it if necessary, but we also (greatly) appreciate a clean bathroom and sheets. Over the brief time that we’ve been traveling, my disdain for touristy spots has increased, and there’s nothing worse than being stuck on a bus and rapidly ushered through one crowded place after another. Sometimes though, the most convenient and cost-effective way to see things is to participate in a group tour. So with this understanding, N and I signed up for a tour of Cao Dai Temple and the Cu Chi Tunnels with TNK Travel. It was really cheap — $8 per person for the all-day tour, excluding an additional $8 in entrance fees. We woke up earlier than usual, had the free breakfast provided by our hotel and boarded a bus at 8:00am with 25 other tourists/travelers.
The bus was clean and air-conditioned, and we slowly crawled through the morning traffic of Saigon as the tour guide rambled on about the history of the temple and the tunnels. We then got to our first stop, which wasn’t the temple or the tunnels, but instead a lacquerware workshop employing people affected by Agent Orange.
First of all, I like how our 30-minute forced souvenir-shopping stop cut into our day, which could’ve been spent exploring and learning more about the tunnels. I think it’s great that this business employs people with disabilities and teaches them useful traditional skills, but I hate it when tours try to sell you random crap at ridiculous prices. Call me cynical, but who knows if the artisans are being treated fairly or paid well, or if their visible disabilities were used by the company to exploit them? The only redeeming factor about this stop is that my mother is a professional Japanese lacquerware artist and it was interesting to see the differences in technique and style. We walked through a huge warehouse piled high with lacquerware products collecting dust and climbed back into the bus to go to the temple. Read more…
“Keep Calm and Carry On” is a good motto to live by in Saigon. When crossing the street here, a safe crossing is determined by how calm and collected you are as you make the walk of potential death. Crossing signs are scarce, so it’s up to you to dodge oncoming traffic to make your way through town. The trick is to not think too much about it. “It”, as in your body colliding with a car, bus, or more realistically, a moped (none of which will slow for you) and being crushed under the dozens of mopeds following closely behind the one that snagged you.
On a particularly busy street, we hesitated and watched as an ancient old lady casually tai chi-ed* her way across the street. While our version wasn’t nearly as graceful as we jerkily zombied across, we did it. Multiple times. In humid, 97 degree heat, with the sun beating down on us. I’m kind of proud of us.
A blogger had mentioned that walking through Saigon is a stressful rather than a pleasant experience after the first hour of it being somewhat thrilling, and unfortunately, it’s true. The sidewalks are almost always blocked off by mopeds parked in a jumble in front of storefronts, forcing pedestrians to hug the curb and walk in the street. And right when you think you’ve made it safely across to the other side, a moped driver will gun it down the sidewalk at you. No, not even the sidewalks are safe.