Vietnam – Part 2 (Hue, Hoi An and Nha Trang) December 19, 2010Posted by jorkat in Uncategorized.
As I alluded to at the tail end of my previous post, the 15 hour bus ride ended up being tolerable at best. The best way I can describe the pods we were in would be to imagine a decent sized coffin with a reclining feature. Throw in a dirty blanket and pillow and that’s pretty much it. There’s a chance I may have acquired bed bugs or some sort of rash on my leg from the blanket, but aside from that we survived.
We disembarked the bus in Hue to our first rainy day after over 3 weeks of traveling. Fortunately we arranged for a pickup from our hotel and didn’t have to deal with the swarm of taxi drivers looking for business from naïve travelers. The only downside was that our pickup was a guy on a scooter. I’m not sure if he was planning on trying to squeeze both of us on board or simply wanted to see if we showed up, but once he saw our two big and two small backpacks, he called for backup. At least I thought he did at first as he couldn’t speak English and used a series of hand signals before taking off with my wife on his bike while I stood there wondering if I would ever see her again. Fortunately, my faith in a complete stranger who we had just met on the other side of the world paid off, and the other driver arrived a few minutes later. This guy balanced my large backpack between his legs while I sat on the back with the small backpack eagerly anticipating my life flashing before my eyes. I wouldn’t be disappointed. Hue is a much smaller town so there wasn’t nearly as much traffic, but there were more than enough cars, scooters and obstacles to make the ride interesting. Factor in a moderate rainfall and you’d think he might exercise some caution to ensure that his customer arrived safely at the hotel. You would think that.
The rain didn’t let up all day so we didn’t get to see some of the famous sights in Hue, which was once the capital of Vietnam and still considered by some as the unofficial cultural capital. It was also one of the most heavily bombed areas during the war but thanks to Mother Nature and modern technology, we decided to take a well deserved day off and watch TV on our laptop. This was also the best wi-fi signal we’d had since our travels began and we wanted to capitalize on the opportunity to catch up on our TV shows and my blog posts. So yeah, Hue was awesome.
We could have stayed an extra day but both Katie and I had been looking forward to our next destination for some time. A mere three hour bus ride away, Hoi An is famous for having over 200 different tailors who make custom clothing. They can make pretty much anything as long as you can describe it in detail or provide a picture. The only negotiable item is the quality of the fabric and how soon you need the garment. I must admit that I was skeptical going in as I was pessimistic about the quality of fabric and craftsmanship, especially when the turnaround time is so fast.
With so many options to choose from, the hardest part is just finding a reputable shop to ensure that you’re going to get a quality garment. From what I saw, there definitely was some variance in the quality of the fabrics from place to place, and this was reflected in the price quoted. I was intent on getting some suits made and I didn’t want to skimp on price for something subpar that would fall apart in 6 months. I had done some research beforehand and came across what ended up being the biggest tailor in town, with 3 separate locations. Almost all the reviews online were positive and pointed out that you might pay a bit more, but that you’ll be pleased with the results.
Less than 48 hours after first stepping into the store and 3 fittings later, I couldn’t be more satisfied. The entire experience was very enjoyable and if I had to describe the results with only 4 letters, they would definitely be P-I-M-P.
Out of curiosity and for the sake of comparison, Katie and I also had some other clothes made at a much smaller tailor a few stores down from the first place. It was run by two young ladies, one of which did a very convincing sales pitch, not unlike any of the other places. After some debate we decided to have another suit and some dresses made for Katie. The price for the suit was lower than what I paid at the first place, but the quality of the fabric seemed just as good, if not better. Our only concern was timing as they told us that it wouldn’t be ready until the morning that we were leaving whereas I would have 3 fittings for my other 2 suits during that same time frame. The suit ended up being ok and Katie’s dresses looked great but the quality of service, attention to detail and professionalism at the first place made the premium we paid more than worth it.
After spending most of our first day doing reconnaissance and educating ourselves on the area and process, we got fitted for our first round of clothing and spent the rest of the evening exploring the city on foot.
Hoi An is a charming little riverside town famed for its architecture, its quiet, narrow streets and its history as a merchant trading post. As the citizens of the town grew richer from trading with China, Japan and the rest of Southeast Asia, they spent their money on building attractive houses and pagodas. It is now one of the most popular tourist destinations in Vietnam, and rightfully so. It’s very concentrated and easy to navigate, the atmosphere is relaxed and most importantly, the tailors.
Despite the high numbers of tourists, Hoi An manages to retain its charm – perhaps many of them stay hidden away inside the many hotels and resorts that line the streets. The main evidence is the number of shops and tailors littered throughout the central core, but somehow this doesn’t detract too much from the overall atmosphere.
Most of all though you can find a lot of pleasure in strolling around the quiet streets (as motorbikes and cars are banned from many of them), sitting quietly by the river, visiting museums and merchants houses and generally taking life at a slower pace than you might elsewhere in the country.
Our second day was dominated by the second round of fittings and shopping around to find some more places for Katie to get some dresses and other items made. The sheer volume of different shops and options on display is very intimidating so it’s hard to find a place you’re comfortable with when you know there’s so many others within range.
A few dresses, jackets, ties and dress shirts later, we were shopped out for the day and decided to rent some bicycles. Much like Hue, the traffic isn’t nearly as dense as in the major cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh (Saigon). Don’t let that fool you though, as it’s far from a leisurely pedal through the park. There’s still incessant honking from all types of vehicles which is the hardest thing to get used to. You have to constantly remind yourself that they aren’t honking because you’re doing something wrong, they’re simply alerting you of their presence. Next time you’re out for a spin, try honking every time you pass someone and then imagine if everyone was doing that at once. It doesn’t sound very appealing but it seems to work and becomes background noise once you’re exposed to it long enough. Noise pollution at its very finest.
Our bike ride ended up being one of our highlights of the entire trip. There was enough chaos around us that you had to remain alert and not let your mind wander off, but we were going slowly enough that we could soak in the sights and see more of the city pass us by. The beach was only 3 km’s away so we went straight there and enjoyed a nice long leisurely stroll as the sun slowly set on another rewarding day.
Our final day in Hoi An was spent trying to cope with the heat and humidity as we scrambled from shop to shop for final fittings and to pick everything up. With just over an hour to spare before our departure, we got to the post office and shipped everything home. Mission accomplished, although it was hard spending the better part of three days shopping for new clothes and then sending them away knowing you won’t see them for a few months. I felt like I was just getting to know them and now it’s over. Parting is such sweet sorrow.
We enjoyed (tolerated) our first bus ride so much that we decided to do it again from Hoi An to Nha Trang. I let my guard down and expected the same bus hoping for similar seats on the left side of the bus which were bigger (you could actually role over!). Of course, the bus was a slightly different design that had more beds than our first bus, and thus less room to maneuver in our coffins.
Thanks Hoi An. You’ve given us some fond memories which I know I’ll appreciate even more next time I go to buy a suit back in Canada. Off the rack for 5 times the price – Hooray! You’ve also given us something else to look forward to when we finally get home. Yeah, yeah, family, friends, I get it…but what I’ll really be looking forward to is my first opportunity to suit up.
Yes, you just read 1500 words about us shopping for clothes.
Hold on, I’m not done.
Traveling full-time is harder than it seems. We were both pretty wiped out after our aforementioned 3 days of shopping along with a 12-hour overnight bus ride. So we decided that we needed a well-deserved break from our travels. We needed a vacation from our holiday (?).
We couldn’t have chosen a better place for said relaxation than the city of Nha Trang. Our bus rolled into town right on schedule at the crack of 6am and thanks to our hotel pickup we were in our rooms just down the street by 6:15am. After a quick shower and some unpacking, we were in our bathing suits headed for the beach. Darren, Kirsten et al had already visited Nha Trang and recommended a beach club called La Louisiane Brewhouse. After a quiet 15 minute walk along the beach side boardwalk, we arrived and were immediately impressed. By this time it was just after 7am and we weren’t sure if it was even open yet. Much to our delight an employee came out to greet and seat us for a poolside breakfast.
We were finished breakfast by 8am and found a nice spot under a large bamboo umbrella with two comfortable beach recliners. I won’t bore you with the details of the rest of the day, mostly because there aren’t any. Between 8am and 5pm, I didn’t leave this position unless it was to use the washroom, go for a swim or have a massage.
Oh, I also took a moment to take some pictures of this spectacular beach.
I would highly recommend Nha Trang and the beach in particular to anyone looking to travel to this part of the world for a relaxing vacation. You can book a hotel for $10 per day and literally just sleep there while enjoying very affordable beach clubs like La Louisiane. We lived in the lap of luxury for under $50 per day.
The town itself was fun to explore as well. I’ve come to the conclusion that my favourite cities that we’ve visited are usually the smaller ones which have a distinct laid-back atmosphere. These cities often provide a more accurate glimpse into the lives of the local population and give you a good feel for their culture and how they go about their lives. Nha Trang fit this description perfectly as despite having pockets of foreign influence and the obvious tourist destinations (La Louisiane), we felt like we were entrenched in an authentic little (but quickly expanding) Vietnamese town. There was a brand new Sheraton that had just opened and construction on several other large hotel chains were well under way so it’s clear that the secret is out on this small beach front city of under 400,000 people. I’ve been debating the merits of places that were off the beaten path succumbing to the lure of tourist dollars, but I’ll save that for another post of its own.
We enjoyed our first day in Nha Trang so much that we decided to make it a two-day vacation from our travels. On our second night after another long and uneventful day at the beach we decided to sample some of the local seafood. I used to despise all seafood until just a few years ago but since then, have taking quite a liking to it under the right circumstances. So ordering it in a restaurant in Vietnam was a bold move for yours truly, so I decided to go big. After surveying the display of fresh seafood to choose from I decided to go with the lobster.
It was a wise decision. Special thanks to the garlic and butter for all of their contributions.
On our way to dinner we were amazed by the amount of people out and about. It was a Friday night, but the streets were packed compared to the night before.
We assumed that this was just a typical Friday night until we emerged from the restaurant to find the streets even busier. There also seemed to be a celebratory mood in the air which made sense as soon as the fireworks began and everyone started to lose their minds. I don’t think these people see fireworks all that often.
We still aren’t exactly sure what the occasion was but we suspect it had something to do with acknowledging the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. When I took this picture of Katie in front of what we assumed was city hall, it never occurred to us that the dates on the large banner said April 2, 1975 – 2010.
The reason for the oversight was that we had witnessed what seemed like an impromptu parade through the streets of Hoi An on March 28th which indicated that it was the 35th Anniversary that day. From the brief research I conducted which consisted of me typing “Vietnam War” into Wikipedia, it seems as though the war didn’t officially end until the end of April, so the only thing we can deduct from all this is that perhaps these dates mark the takeover or victory of the northern forces of these particular cities which culminated with the fall of Saigon towards the end of the month. I welcome any reader with knowledge of the subject to enlighten us, but for now I’m going to assume that we’re on a 35th anniversary tour of Vietnam.
Today is April 3rd, 2010 and we’re back on the bus for a 10-hour drive to Ho Chi Minh (formerly Saigon). I have a feeling some more fireworks and parades may be in store.
I leave you today with one last video which shows the same intersection featured in all the previous videos immediately after the fireworks ended. Enjoy.
Stay tuned for Vietnam – Part 3.