Clinton has said my last blog was good enough that I am “allowed” to continue and write Hoi An….lucky me! I’d also like to confirm that no…Clinton has not yet lived up to his end of the deal..I still am booking everything for Europe tsk tsk…
We arrived in Hoi An bleary eyed and thankful to be alive right on dawn. We exited the bus and were met by a group of Vietnamese trying to get us to go in their taxi
to their cousins hotel just down the road and blah blah blah. When we mentioned we had already booked a hotel, this was not enough to get them off our case! Apparently, our hotel was too far away and we could not possibly walk it. Of course, we already had directions to our hotel in our hands so set off on foot with our backpacks strapped to our backs, left them eating our dust, and walked … the short 800m distance to our hotel…easy! We dumped our bags and headed out into the ancient city of Hoi An.
Apart from being the present day food mecca of Vietnam, Hoi An is also a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and is an exceptionally well-preserved example of South-East Asian trading ports dating back from the 15th-19th centuries. It has history as a trade port going right back to the 1st century with the Champa Empire. Needless to say, history abounds and the culture is reflective of the many influences and inhabitants the city has welcomed. Many buildings have wooden saloon like doors and one part of the city was separated by a Japanese bridge, built during the war.
Hoi An has been on my must do list for sometime. I had heard from several friends and from my own research that this was the food capital of Vietnam, so I didn’t care how much we had to eat, but determined we were going to eat our way through this city and not stop until we’d tasted it all. Our first stop was a place that came highly recommended by our dear friend Lisa – Ms Nam’s. Being rather early in the morning, we were still after breakfast and the business card Lisa provided stated that Ms Nam’s was open so we were on the hunt! I had been told that Hoi An was extremely busy and full of annoying suit makers trying to pull you in at every moment, but this early in the morning the streets were bare and it was so lovely walking the streets and breathing it all in, uninterrupted. We followed Lisa’s directions to a tee, however we were obviously getting something wrong as we could not find this place at all! We walked through various backstreets, peering in at Vietnamese homes as they cooked their breakfast, getting increasingly hungry ourselves! After what seemed like hours, Clinton finally admitted defeat and allowed me to ask someone who pointed us in the right direction – only problem was still being Tet (which seems to last at least a week) Ms Nam’s was closed. Damn! Now starving, we took off in the direction of the market knowing we’d be able to get some kind of street food, and sure enough within minutes we were sitting down to a bowl of a Hoi An speciality, Cau Lau. Cau Lau is a noodle dish that dates back to the 17th century and is not made authentically anywhere else but Hoi An. The difference is the noodles have a much firmer and chewier texture, and there is very little broth. It is usually served with bean sprouts and greens, some slices of pork and some crunchy fried pork rind for texture. This particular rendition also had tomato and pineapple in it which added to the salty/sweet/sour/spicy taste. Washed down with a sugar cane juice, this provided the perfect sustenance for the morning.
Our next hunt for the day was Bia Hoi. We had read much about this beer and had hoped to find it in Saigon but were unsuccessful. Basically, it is a beer that is brewed every day and consumed by the locals. It has no preservatives or additives in it at all, so spoils after a day. (Totally making it a healthy choice!) It’s also quite
light, 3.5% and is very cheap even in Vietnamese terms ranging from 4000 to 10000 dong per glass. 20 to 50 cents Australian. We had seen various signs at restaurants saying that they sell fresh beer, however every person we spoke to said that it was currently unavailable, not being brewed due to Tet. We had to settle for a La Rue instead which was becoming more prominent the further we moved North away from Saigon.
We had been recommended by Clinton’s friend Justin to do Neville’s food tour of Hoi An whilst we were in town. We had emailed Neville while we were in Nha Trang hoping to get a spot on this tour, however of course because of Tet his team were on holidays. Tet was proving to be an absolute bitch! He was so very kind to us though, and sent us an email with about 10 to 15 restaurants and street stalls to try whilst we were in Hoi An. Brilliant! We spent the rest of the first day trying to locate some of these restaurants and street food stalls. We didn’t have much luck as most were still closed because of Tet (bloody Tet!) however we did find an amazing vegan restaurant he recommended. I’ve always enjoyed vegetarian food, but must admit it is not something I cook regularly, always living with a man in the house (ie my father or Clinton) who really appreciate their meat! This restaurant though blew me away! I have never experienced the depth of flavour in vegetarian food like this
before. Clinton and I consumed another Hoi An speciality, White Rose, which are similar to Chinese dumplings, however are made with rice flour as opposed to
tapioca flour and are filled with a mix of mushrooms and topped with a sweetish sauce and crunchy fried shallots. Simply Amazing! We also shared a vegetarian version of Cau Lau and a fried eggplant dish with lashings of chilli, peanuts and coriander. Simply delicious! After a few more La Rue beers and a quick look at the river by night, it was time to call it a night and get a decent sleep after our horror sleeper bus experience the night before.
Our next wonderful experience in this city was hiring bikes from our hotel. We had looked on a map that suggested the beach was only about 4km’s away so still wanting more beach time, we packed our towels and set up riding the back way through rice paddies and old neighbourhoods. I haven’t ridden a bike for a number of years, but absolutely loved following Clinton with the wind in my hair, singing various old songs, (Billy Joel and Don McLean came up a lot…thanks Mum and Dad) finally in control of my own transportation. We reached the beach all too soon and turned right, away from the tourist area and continued along the road. We eventually stopped at a pretty secluded spot, where we had the beach practically to ourselves. What a treat! Still a bit too cold to go for a swim, we happily sat on the sand and read before continuing on our way.
Neville had recommended a seafood restaurant that apparently had the best shrimp spring rolls in the world. Obviously I needed to try this, but navigating ourselves to this off the beaten track restaurant proved to be quite difficult. After riding for what seemed like miles, we finally pulled over to get some water and ask a local about this restaurant. Of course this local spoke minimum english and despite saying “yes” to every question I asked her, I quickly worked out she actually didnt know where this restaurant was or, if she did, she couldn’t tell me in English. Back on our bikes in the opposite direction, I came across a tourist information hut where the owner spoke a little English and was able to tell me the direction the restaurant was in, but that it was far away. Not wanting to admit defeat, we set off determined and, Clinton with a vague map on his phone, managed to get us off the main street and through a backstreet where we were able to see little households with their own growing herb and greens gardens. Simply amazing! After about another hour of riding, we were tired, hungry and lost. We found what looked to be some restaurant chains close to a beach but it was not the correct one. Vietnamese ladies were hassling us trying to get us to park our bikes for 5000 dong and upon asking the lady if this restaurant was located here, we were told no and it was ages away – 30kms!. Oh dear. Increasingly agitated, Clinton spotted a free wifi sign so motioned for me to try and gain some access to Google directions. As i was walking closer to the free wifi I noticed a sign of a shop 3 doors down… “Tuyet Seafood” the place!!! Hooray!!!! We had found it!!! We quickly parked our bikes, paid our money (rip off) and in minutes were seated on the beach requesting Neville’s special menu and a well earned La Rue.
This meal was 5 courses of specialness (totally a word). First up were the much anticipated shrimp spring rolls and they did not disappoint. This crunchy, almost Greek like Kanafeh encasing the spring rolls was something I had not seen in Asian cuisine before. Inside were lovely fresh shrimp, octopus and various vegetables served with the best nuoc cham sauce I’ve ever consumed. Getting very excited by such an amazing course, we didn’t have to wait for long to try the other four courses. Amazing large fresh shrimp again in tamarind sauce, that was the perfect mix of salty, sweet and sour, grilled baby octopus that was so tender, steamed crab with a butter sauce that just allowed the crab to melt in your mouth and finally fish wrapped in banana leaf, which was made all the more interesting of the smoky taste that came through the fish from the grill. No words can do this meal justice. Clinton and I sat at this restaurant for hours just oohing and ahhing as each course was
brought out. We were a bit concerned towards the end that as we had not ordered from a menu, that this meal was going to blow our budget for 3 days, however upon
receiving the receipt we were surprised that we had both just consumed an amazing 5 course seafood lunch with drinks and with our feet in the sand for the large sum of $35! Bargain!! It was getting late by this time so we collected our bikes from the “valet parking” and headed for home.
Our evening began with a walk through the night market along the river in the ancient town. This market was just like any other night market in Vietnam, however it was interesting for me to again watch all the teenagers look at Clinton and laugh and point at his height. Thinking he must be getting quite a complex at the moment, it reached an all time high when a group of teenage boys asked if they could have a photo with him. For the next couple of minutes Clinton had to play model as various shots were taken. So hilarious!! Needing some sustenance, we again went in search of Ms Nams and hooray! she was open! We sat down to a couple of cheap beers and munched on some more White Rose – these with meat and equally delicious and another Cau Lau, again a very original interpretation but also very nice. After a few more beers watching the locals and life pass us by, we called it a night.
Our last morning in Hoi An was spent on a tour to My Son. My Son is the name given to a cluster of abandoned and mostly ruined Hindu temples that were constructed between the 4th and 14th century by the kings of Champa. The bus ride passed without any event and before we knew it we were there. The guide took a liking to Clinton and on the walk to the ruins described that today might be his last day because he was sick of tourists who did not speak English! He also went through his working history, explaining that he had been an interpretator for the enemy in the Vietnam war. He turned out to be an excellent guide, very clear in English and we spent the next hour and a half walking around these amazing ruins. It was very interesting to hear that over 70 temples once existed within a 2km radius between these mountain ranges. Unfortunately though, the evidence of the war here is extremely apparent, The majority of the architecture was bombed within one week and only a handful of temples remain. It was interesting to see that the craters from the bombs still remain, and bullets still exist in some of the temples. Before we knew it however, our time at My Son was over all too quickly and we were back on the bus on the way back to Hoi An to catch another bus to Hue (pronounced Hway.)
The bus to Hue was typical, bumpy road with no suspension in the back. The 4 hour journey took us through Da Nang (where we did not stop, but looked beautiful). It also was a scenic ride through various mountains and provided the best scenic views I had seen on the bus rides so far. (I guess I should point out that this is the first bus ride that I was mostly awake for, I think I only slept for about half an hour or so, but Clinton assures me these views were the most amazing). We finally disembarked from the bus, having arrived in Hue, at dusk in a destination that we were not expecting to get dropped off in, just great! The usual onslaught of Vietnamese of course were there, but we set off in the vague direction of our hotel. Hue was once the nation’s capital from 1802 and 1945. Perhaps our expectations were wrong, especially after just being in picturesque Hoi An, but the city seemed dirty, a wee bit smelly and a little unsafe, especially since our hotel ended up being down some dingy little alley way with very dim lighting. We realised quite quickly that there was not much do to in Hue except for the main tourist attraction – the citadel. We spent the following morning walking around the old city and exploring the Citadel, which is what remains of the Nguyen Dynasty. We then went walking through (another) market, but for the first time in Vietnam did not feel comfortable eating the street food. We tried a little bit of the local food at a nearby restaurant, not really appreciating the flavours, it all just seemed a little off. We walked back to our hotel eager to call it a night and get out of Hue the next day, but needing some
bottled water we stopped off at a little place across the road, and ended up staying for a couple of beers with two of the owner’s drunk friends. They did not speak a
word of English, and we obviously did not speak a word of Vietnamese so after about half an hour we had finally figured out each others names, our ages, and that Clinton and I were “in love.” The owner’s 8 year old son was there and able to interpret some of this for us. After 3 rounds of beers, we finally called it a night,
went to pay and of course had to pay for the Vietnamese guys beers! We spent the next day in Hue doing some travel planning, and before long it was time to board our next horrible sleeper bus to Hanoi! Not again!