We write this from our hotel in Hoi An where we’ve spent the last five nights visiting this cultured, quiet and charming seaside city just south of its more famous neighbour, Da Nang. We have loved it here. If we could, we would skip Saigon, stay in Hoi An for another week and then dash over the border from here to Cambodia. But we can’t, so we’re about to board another bus and make our way to the hill station of Dalat.
Our bus from Hanoi was pretty interesting. The bus in Vietnam is marked by crazy mayhem but we now have our system down. Scott is in charge of the bags, budding ahead to throw our bags into the stowage himself. Foreign tourists all stand around vainly trying to discern what line up they should be in to hand their bag to the bus attendant. But it totally doesn’t matter. Karen just walks past the line up at the front of the bus door and gets on to secure two seats next to each other. This is the only way we seem to be able to not get stuck with two seats separated at either end of the bus. Vietnamese don’t wait in tidy lines, so none of the services designed for tourists abide by the polite western rules of etiquette either. The buses may have a defined departure time, but in reality they will wait until the bus is full before departing. When we left Hanoi, the bus was full but it stopped three more times to pick up more passengers before we finally left the city limits.
There was an angry American on the bus who seemed particularly vexed about his bags being too close to a motorbike in the luggage compartment. He was shouting at the drivers and attendants that if the bike leaked gas on his luggage he was going to beat up the driver. We aren’t sure what it is exactly that people expect when they get on a $25 bus that will take them from one end of Vietnam to the other, but it isn’t going to be Greyhound. After a lot of embarrassing behaviour from this yahoo, another American traveler went and sat down beside him and was able to calm him down.
The fun on the bus wasn’t over yet…. All night through this 14-hour trip we stopped at various points along the way, always to pick up more passengers. No one ever got off. After just the first hour into the trip we had people sitting on the floor, fold out chairs in the aisle were put out for extra seats, and the relief bus driver strung up a hammock between a seat and the railing at the front of the bus. Our bus was jammed. Keep in mind that everyone pays the same fare. Some of us lucky enough to board at the beginning got proper seats next to the window and place to put our bags. One German couple were not amused when they boarded the bus after waiting for hours in some small industrial town along the way. What they were doing there we couldn’t guess. There wasn’t much to see. But they were clearly frustrated and angry before they got on. When they were offered a plastic stool in the aisle instead of the comfy seats they had paid for, the young man exploded. His anger was understandable but he looked like a clown when he started raving at the driver and the attendants, demanding to have a proper seat when it was clear there were fewer than none available. His outburst struck people as funny and we had to concentrate on looking out the window to avoid bursting out laughing. He had a good point: He paid the same fare for a plastic kids’ stool in the middle aisle as those of us who were sitting in regular seats. But still. This is Vietnam. It’s the middle of the busiest holiday of the year. And it is what it is. No amount of shouting was ever going to land him or his girlfriend a different seat. We just sat back and prayed we didn’t crash into anything. Those two would be blasted out the front windshield like fleshy missiles in an instant.
The intensity of frustration on the bus peaked when one of the tourists announced that he was going to boycott this bus company when he got back to his home country. All the foreign passengers (except the two of us) clapped and cheered. This didn’t help angry American guy. We’d been watching him, worried about his heart going into cardiac arrest. The German outrage, followed by this latest outburst was only validating his rage. At one point it seemed a mutiny was about to break out but the revolt withered. The Vietnamese just basically ignored it all and kept driving or sleeping. Somehow we made it to Hue without anyone losing an eye.
It was early morning when we arrived. In true Vietnam fashion the bus stopped right in front of a hotel and a woman immediately hopped on to ‘help’ all of us. But Scott had figured out where we were as we rolled into town and somehow knew where we wanted to go. We just jumped off the bus, squeezing past the helpful woman, grabbed our own bags from below and confidently trotted off to find our hotel.
It was hot in Hue. Nearly 40°C amid soaking humidity. By the time we reached the hotel all we wanted to do was peel off our clothes, shower, and get the sleep we had sorely missed the night before. Because we were so tired, it was hard to notice, but Scott began to complain about feeling ill. By the evening, he had cold chills and it was clear that he was going to have his first experience with traveler’s diarrhea.
The next day however, his stomach seemed to settle down, so we went out and checked out the sites. The heat was intense. Hell is this hot. The kind of heat where people like us don’t spend time outside after 12:00 noon. That being said, even local people were sweating and complaining about the heat.
Despite a lot of advice from fellow travelers and local Vietnamese to skip Hue, we got off the bus there and stayed in a little hotel across from the ruins of the ancient capital city. We chose to visit the city because of the rave reviews in all the guidebooks. Sadly, not much of the historically important city is left following the intense bombing campaigns of the Americans during the War. It was literally leveled. Now rebuilt, it is mainly a city of concrete cinder block and the flattened ruins of a once-magnificent royal citadel complex. Hue is the ancient capital of Vietnam, and once the centre of Chinese rule in the country.
It was inexpensive and friendly but Hue had a lot going against it. In fairness, the combination of a terrible bus trip, Scott’s illness, and the intense humidity combined with blazing hot days made for a pretty lackluster visit. After two nights we got back on the bus, and headed to Hoi An.
Arriving in Hoi An followed a by now familiar pattern. The bus stops outside a hotel, a “helpful” local gets aboard with reassurances of helpfulness, recommendations for best hotels – which mostly include the one you stopped in front of, taxi drivers ready to take you four blocks for $5 USD. But there was also something different in this town. Hoi An is an artsy place, home to many craftspeople making clothing, shoes, paintings, sculptures, and a host of other things. It is extremely popular with tourists, and the local standard of living seems higher compared with other parts of Vietnam.
Flowers were in bloom everywhere, there are many different types of birds, and its impeccably clean. Hoi An is famous for its tailor-made clothing and shoes. We’ve had three pairs of pants and three shirts made. The quality is great given what you pay. The service is incredible and the shops are locally owned.
Our hotel is amazing (hoianthienthanhhotel.com). It’s popular and is listed in our guidebook as one of the best places. We totally understand why. The back patio where we have our breakfast overlooks a water spinach field and it’s there that we watch an amazing array of activity. Farmers preening the spinach, birds catching insects, fish swimming and jumping, and the biggest, fattest rats we’ve ever seen. The hotel also served Karen’s favourite. Mango pancakes.
One of our favourite memories of this entire trip occurred here. One night, we headed out into town to get some dinner when it started to rain. It quickly turned into a tropical downpour and we had to sprint back to the hotel. Dinner plans were changed and we headed out onto the back patio where one table was sheltered from the rain underneath a giant umbrella. No one else wanted to be outside, so we were alone. But the friendly hotel staff didn’t seem to mind if we ate out here.
It was perfect. Peaceful and warm. The sound and smell of tropical rain, each heavy drop landing on the wooden deck and the umbrella. Plack, plack, plack. The animals and exotic insects came out to soak up the water. There’s nothing in the world like it.
After about 30 minutes, the rain stopped as suddenly as it had began. Tapering off until all you could hear was the gentle drip…drip of the water falling to the ground from off the roof and the umbrella.
Our hotel server came out and, laughing, asked us suddenly how long we had been together. When we told her she turned to Karen and asked, “You are both happy still?”
“Yes,” Karen said. “We’re genuinely happy together.”
“Oh! you’re very lucky to be so happy!” She’s right. We are.
She then asked us what we would like for dinner. Scott told her we were vegetarians, and asked her what she’d suggest?
“You are vegetarians?” she said, closing the menus and snatching them away. “We’ll make a special set menu for you! I’ll be right back!”
About 20 minutes later food began coming out of the kitchen. Plate after plate with flavours and tastes we haven’t had in Vietnam up to now. It was a six-course meal and easily the best vegetarian food we’ve had in this country. The sun set during our dinner overlooking the water spinach farm and amphibian and insect life out there was abundant. It was like the musical accompaniment to our romantic dinner for two.
After we finished, one of the hotel guests we had chatted with earlier that day at the tailor shop came out on the patio. The other tables and chairs were soaking wet, so we invited him to sit with us. We spent another couple of hours chatting with JC from California about everything from meditation and travel, to politics.
This was our last night in Hoi An. And it was perfect.