We were able to roll some sightseeing into our transfer from Hue to Hoi An, taking in the Hai Van Pass of Top Gear fame. That’s actually how they advertise it: “as seen on Top Gear”, which is a little bit sad. Our dislike of, and more importantly our inability to ride, motorbikes has somewhat limited our sightseeing experience on the road throughout Asia, but we are at least still happily in possession of all of our skin. So, we were in a minibus again and this time we had to share.
Our first stop was a small commune on the outskirts of Hue called Thuy Thanh. It’s a tiny place surrounded by rice fields with a small but busy market full of local produce. A personal favourite of James’s were the buckets of eels which writhed madly, with the odd eel occasionally making a bid for freedom across the floor of the market before being caught by the stallholder.
The main reason for the stop is Thanh Toan Bridge, a truly beautiful 200 year old wooden bridge over a river filled with lillies.
Our next stop was Lang Co Beach where we filed through an abandoned resort to stand on the beach for 15 minutes before getting back on the bus again. It was fairly pointless but the beach was pretty.
Next up was the Hai Van Pass. The drive up and around the hill is quite lovely and we could definitely see how it would be an amazing drive on a motorbike. In a bus it’s only a pretty drive, certainly not the best that we have done on this trip, and not one that we would go out of our way to do.
The viewpoint at the top of the pass was absolutely chokka with tourists, including a woman laboriously scrambling up the hill in her wedding dress.
We roared through Da Nang, stopping only to pick up banh mi, a baguette filled with paté and BBQ pork and pickled veg and mayo. It was our first taste of banh mi and despite being picked up from a chain bakery, it was a pretty good intro. Our final stop was Marble Mountain, one of a collection of five mountains south of Da Nang, scattered with temples, pagodas, statues and a smattering of caves.
We opted to be really lazy and take the lift up to the top rather than sweat it out on the stairs. The map made it look as though you could easily spend a couple of hours exploring the top but the mountain is pretty small and we had whizzed around the key sites in about 30 minutes.
Our bus dropped a short distance from our homestay, Green Garden House, which was down a back alley that you could just about squeeze a car along but a bus was completely out of the question. We were met by Jenny, who was an absolute delight from beginning to end and a really sweet host. We were installed in our room and waited until the late afternoon to venture in to investigate Hoi An.
Our first thought when we got in to Hoi An’s heritage old town was “wow, this place is beautiful”, and it really is. The roads are lined with gorgeous custard yellow buildings and strung with fairy lights and lanterns. By the time we walked back the lights were glowing throughout the old town
We walked through and crossed the river to find a bar on An Hoi Island where we could watch the world go by. Again, really beautiful.
It took us a surprisingly long time to figure out what was wrong. For one thing, aside from the person serving us drinks, there wasn’t a Vietnamese person in sight. For another, there were speakers on the corner of every street piping out music, the same music throughout the old town, the kind of plinky plonky music you hear in spas. Every so often an announcement about a bike tour would come over the speakers. It felt like we were in a theme park, Disneyland Vietnam, or perhaps what it would be like if Vegas sprouted a Vietnam themed hotel. It was still lovely and there is no doubt that the place has been beautifully preserved, but the buildings were the only thing that was authentic about the Old Town. The atmosphere in the bars and restaurants was quite clinical, there were no regulars or locals to warm the place up, just a lot of tourists. Even the Irish bar lacked the usual charm. After that first evening, we only ventured in for one meal and to do some souvenir shopping.
Outside of the old town was a completely different story and this is where the real Hoi An is. Our Homestay was about a 10 minute walk from the border of the heritage area and was surrounded by bustling roads, busy local restaurants and hundreds of tailors. Our host Jenny was in fact a seamstress/tailor herself and she showed us some samples of her work. We were unsure whether technically she was a tailor or a seamstress, by Google’s definition she is both because she both makes and alters the clothes. Caro had been umming and ahing about whether to get some clothes made while we were there, but as we have a wedding to go to in a month or so and she needed to buy a dress anyway, we decided it was a worth a go. It turned out to be excellent fun and good value. James, not wishing to miss out of the fun, jumped in and had a couple of bits and pieces made too.
First stop was a visit to the material shops. We followed Jenny across town on bikes and she sped along on her moped.
Once we had picked the material and had every measurement possible taken, we left Jenny and her family to get on with producing the garments.
Whilst the ladies got to work, we decided to cycle through the countryside and hit up the beach. Our first stop though was for sustenance at Banh Mi Phuong, a shop which was made famous by American chef Anthony Bourdain visiting and calling their banh mi the best in Vietnam. It certainly lived up to our expectations and was probably the best one we had. Its TV fame meant there was a queue out the door but this mainly consisted of dithering tourists so we stuck our elbows out and shouted out what we wanted.
Very satisfied, we set off to explore. The countryside cycle route we had found online was not quite the idyllic ride it once was as a bypass has been built through the middle of it, but the large majority was a relaxed cycle through fish farm ponds and rice paddies.
Our final destination was the beach. The beach is awash with sun loungers but not in an overly bad way, it was quite popular as opposed to oppressively busy. A fine line but an important distinction. We pitched up on a couple of beds and James settled in to one of his favourite activities, drinking beer on the beach.
We got back to the homestay and no more than 5 hours after we had visited the material shop there was a suit waiting for James to try on.
It still needed some alterations but the quality and speed of production were amazing.
That evening we went for Cao Lau, a pork noodle dish that is a speciality of Hoi An. We avoided the Old Town and found our way to Com Ga “Ty”, it used to be called Cao Lau “Ty” but has changed names to reflect the other dish that it serves instead. The restaurant is little more than a street stall down a small alley.
The food was tasty and super cheap, it comes with an 100% recommendation from us. This light meal was probably a good plan as we had another fitting when we got back after dinner. Caro had already gotten in to bed when Jenny knocked on our door and came in with James’s suit again. She was followed by her two young children who happily clambered on to the bed with Caro whilst Jenny fiddled with James’s sleeves. This particular scene rates highly on our list of favourite travelling experiences.
About an hour outside Hoi An is the temple complex of My Son. We were initially undecided about whether to visit as the reviews weren’t exactly spectacular, but it is a UNESCO World Heritage site so James insisted we go. We decided against the 4 am start for sunrise but compromised with an early 7am start, to beat the tour groups that leave at 8am. This turned out to be a great call as we got to wander around the temples in peace before the crowds arrived an hour later. We wandered around, had an argument and took in our beautiful surroundings.
My Son is set in the middle of the jungle and you get an electric golf buggy several kilometres from the car park to the temples. Unfortunately, the temples were severely damaged by the war and the complex is littered with bomb craters to serve as a reminder.
It’s sometimes slated as the Vietnam’s Angkor Wat. We’re writing this having just been to look at some temples in Angkor and can confirm that My Son is no Angkor, it doesn’t come close, but it is still pretty cool.
The museum on site is definitely worth a visit. There’s lots of information about the history of the site and some really interesting exhibits about ongoing conservation and archaeological investigations.
Back at the guesthouse we had another round of fittings before we took another look at the town. We reconfirmed that the old town is weird, but we nosed around the central market, admired more of the lovely buildings and we also tracked down a free heritage building outside of the UNESCO area to visit.
We also stopped at Banh Mi Queen for lunch, just to make sure that we had compared the best sandwiches in town. It was purely for research purposes.
That evening was our last night in Vietnam. We had dinner at the beach and met up with the American couple we had met in Phong Nha, Maddie and Zach. It was awesome to see familiar faces and chat about the things we had both done over the last week since leaving Phong Nha. They had another few weeks in Vietnam and we were definitely jealous.
Vietnam is an amazing country and has everything that we love; great food, lovely people, cheap beer, great food, lovely beaches, gorgeous countryside, great food. When people ask us about it we quickly become gushy and borderline insufferable. We will definitely be back, mostly for more sandwiches and spring rolls.