Days Twenty Eight through Thirty — Hoi An, Vietnam

Just as quickly as three days in Hoi An became five, those five days have come and gone. We write this sitting in the Da Nang airport awaiting our flight to Hanoi for the next adventure but already missing the one just past. Our opinion of Hoi An hasn’t changed since the last post; if anything, it’s gone up.

The highlight of Day Twenty Eight was an afternoon-long motorbike tour of the countryside around Hoi An, with an Australian guide named Deano who led us on highways and newly paved roads, and through back alleys and dirt/mud paths, to get a better look at how the locals really live. Unsurprisingly, once you get outside of urban Hoi An, it looks a lot more like the villages we saw in Myanmar, though noticeably more developed and cleaner on the whole and with unmistakably Vietnamese scenery of rice paddies and ubiquitous non las. One of the more striking things we saw is that welcoming us to each new hamlet or village was a gate of sorts adorned with some kind of inspirational/patriotic message in Vietnamese (and because the lunar new year has just passed, usually a lingering “Chuc Mung Nam Moi!” banner waiting to be taken down).

(On the left, people working in the rice paddies, the hammer and sickle flag flying in a harbor and over a neighborhood gate, and a glimpse of one of the many colorful cemeteries we passed. On the right, a few shots of the many feats our drivers had to pull off to get us back in one piece.)

We were able to take these pictures because we weren’t actually driving the motorbikes, and for good reason — the ride got pretty treacherous (it had rained the night before, so it was muddy and slick in places) and the “roads” weren’t exactly even in all (most) places. Before our parents retroactively freak out, we were paired with professional licensed riders— Jill with Mr. Tien and Addisu with Mr. Al — who took good care of us while Deano blazed the trail ahead.

(Scenes from the road. Bottom middle: Deano, tired after a long day of driving.)

But the ride itself was a huge part of the day’s entertainment. We zipped through tiny back alleys, nearly spun out on narrow muddy trails perched above aqueducts, and sped across floating bridges barely wide enough for feet, let alone wheels. In short, it was awesome and we highly recommend it.

(Yes, that’s a boat waiting for us to cross so he can lift the floating bridge.)

After cleaning ourselves up, we decided to do our now traditional tour-de-street-food for dinner that night at a food court in the Old Town that Deano recommended. We walked past the tourist activity by the water and into a dark alleyway that had a row of little vendors set up all basically selling the same traditional Hoi An food — kind of like one of those food truck block parties that have become popular in the states. So what else was there to do than try and get a dish from all of them?

(This TripAdvisor fellow seems to be popular around here.)

We actually only made it through those three (of about ten) before we got full but it was super fun and the owners seemed excited/amused that tourists had managed to dodge all the more obvious tourist traps to find them.

We were up early on Day Twenty Nine to head to the Red Bridge Cooking School for a half-day cooking class — with a stop first at a small street vendor for some breakfast pho and a banh mi. These things are everywhere in Hoi An but we chose this one because a) it was on our way and b) the patrons all seemed to be locals on their way to work. The verdict: the banh mi was good, but the pho was great. And it was fun to squat on tiny plastic seats and eat breakfast like a true Vietnamese.

The Red Bridge class was way more touristy than the quaint, private one that we had with Ben in Cambodia. Like that one, however, we started in a local market that like the villages from the motorbike tour, was noticeably cleaner and better kept than the ones from either Myanmar or Cambodia. It was also very clear that the locals take their market time very seriously as we were pushed out of the way a couple times so people could do their shopping. Our cooking class group was a big, probably obnoxious group of tourists snapping pictures so we can’t really blame them.

From the market we took a 20-minute boat ride up the Thu Bon to a secluded hut in a forest where the class would take place. We “cooked” five dishes, although to be honest we only did two of them from scratch, including yet another fresh spring roll. We are going to be really good at those by the time we get home! But this class was more the hand holding type.

The food was good enough but the highlight of the class by far was the instructor, who was truly hilarious and kept it light the whole time. He started by asking if anyone had allergies and when Jill raised her hand about shellfish, he announced to the class of 20 or so: “One American. Eat shrimp. Die!” then continued down the line. The hits kept coming from there. We appreciated getting a stand-up comedy show along with the meal.

(If the cooking thing doesn’t work out, you might see this guy in LA soon…)

Back in town after lunch, we did our souvenir shopping and sightseeing in the Old Town and our final fitting at Khoi for the rest of the afternoon (seriously, if you go to Hoi An and want clothes made, go here! It was amazing). This was our first extended time in the Old Town during the day and we’re glad we did it — in daylight, it was easier to appreciate the architecture, which is a very cool blend of Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese. We also popped into a couple of the oldest houses in Hoi An including the Tan Ky house which has been in the same family for seven generations (and floods every year but is made of teak wood and marble, so withstands the water damage).

(On the middle left, interesting traditional Japanese architecture inside of Tan Ky House. The three horizontal beams represent heaven, earth, and humanity. The five vertical beams represent the five elements — earth, wind, fire, water, and metal.)

For dinner on our last night in Hoi An we decided to actually make a reservation again at a place Mango Mango. The place is very aptly named as virtually every dish and drinks incorporated some form of mango or other tropical fruit. Addisu’s coconut fried prawns and vegetables (complete with mango jicama salad) was the highlight .

With our flight not until 8pm, we were able to fit in a full day of activity on Day Thirty as well. Which made us realize how much we prefer evening flights to morning flights where possible on a multi-city/country trip like this. It feels easier to maximize a travel day in a place you’ve already been than in a new one, not to mention the fatigue/annoyance that comes with airport travel in the morning.

After a morning run and check out, we headed back to Banh Mi Phuong (yes, for a third time) for lunch. We tried several other banh mi places over these three days — a couple random carts, and one quite good pork/egg concoction at a place called Banh Mi Saigon — but there’s no doubt that Phuong was the best. It’s not just Bourdain goggles. We got a BBQ (number 5, thanks Vy for the recommendation) and a Sausage (number 6) which were both, yet again, scrumptious. We also shared a last bowl of cao lau which, unfortunately, is only available in and around Hoi An. A+++ for this place, for sure.

(You know you want one.)

With our first full day of sunshine in Hoi An, we decided to capitalize and head to the An Bang beach, part of the famed so-called “China Beach” where American soldiers vacationed during the war, to see what that was all about. The previous four days had been alternately rainy and overcast (though never cold) but departure day was as perfect of beach weather as we’ve ever experienced, somehow both very sunny and not that hot (80-ish) with a cool breeze. We sat, read, and drank for a couple hours and wondered what could have been had the weather been better all week. Don’t let our experience here obscure the fact that you could easily make Hoi An into a pure beach vacation if you time it right. White sand beaches are about 5km away from downtown.

Finally, at the recommendation of our hotel concierge, we stopped at a place called the Marble Mountain for some pure touristy sightseeing on our way to the airport. Marble Mountain is actually a series of five rock formations into which a series of temples have been carved, sometimes deep into caves within the rock. After what we saw in Thailand, Myanmar, and Cambodia, it was going to be hard to impress us with another temple but this place definitely did, probably more so than the other option (My Son, a more traditional old temple an hour outside of town) would have.

We only visited one of the five mountains, Thuy (Water), which still took a good two hours to take in. The five mountains are named after the five elements — earth, wind, fire, water, metal — but Thuy is the biggest and tallest, and the cool stuff is near the summit. They aren’t nearly as old as the temples of Myanmar and Cambodia (we believe they are 19th century) but have such a distinct feel. There were several different cave temples and pagodas in the complex and we explored most of them, but the highlight was undoubtedly our hike through the Van Thong Temple and up to the Heaven’s Gate, the second highest point of Marble Mountain with a great 360-degree view (the hike to the highest was closed). We did NOT come prepared for this at all — we both wore flip flops and our bathing suits still on from the beach — but had a great time climbing the rocks up through the caves and emerging on top of the world.

Finally, we grabbed a quick dinner at a chicken joint in Da Nang recommended by a friend of Jackson (remember him?). The dish of choice: chicken wings. Seriously. To be more specific, fried chicken wings in lemongrass chili sauce. Addisu clearly hated them…

…and from there, to the airport. Farewell to Hoi An!

(We miss you already!)

We’re finishing this up at our hotel in Hanoi after a quick flight up and long cab ride into the city — during which our cabbie was legit watching a show on his iPad while driving (it was mortifying, but we’re alive). But, in sum, Hoi An was a blast and we would go back in a heartbeat. Tomorrow marks a full month away and while we wouldn’t say it has flown by, we are already getting nostalgic for what has been the trip of a lifetime. It ain’t over yet!


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