And we're back. At this point your intrepid honeymooners have travelled by plane, boat and motorbike - next up: private car! The next leg of our journey took us from Hue to Hoi An, another city about 90 miles down the coast. There are busses and such but the easiest (and prettiest) way to get from A to B is via private car which sounds fancy but cost like 50 bucks, which I've definitely spent on a night of taxis so perhaps quite not as bougey as it seems. Also you can stop along the way at sites, making your journey into a sightseeing trip.
We booked a tour through Stop and Go Tours and it was meh. Our tour guide spoke basically no English and we, of course, speak zero Vietnamese and he just kind of drove us around and deposited us at various sightseeing locales and we'd take a photo, read whatever info we could glean from our Lonely Planet Guide and then hop back in, always uncomfortably aware of having another person with us but being unable to communicate with him. So, less "Tour" and more "Automotive Transport With Sightseeing Pauses plus Bonus Class and Race Anxiety."
A few of the stops felt kind of arbitrary and pointless, but for the most point the views were spectacular and it did get us where we needed to go, in comfortable, air-conditioned fashion so worth it in the end.
First Stop: Lang Co Beach which was pretty but sort of underwhelming and not really worth the 20-minute detour it took to get there. We parked at a run-down resort that was essentially deserted, save tourists like us, briefly stopping off on bus & car trips and a group of Chinese people doing karaoke on the patio. It was 10 AM. They were, presumably, sober as a judge. Of all the major cultural differences between the United States & Asia, the ONE THING we kept getting caught up is karaoke. Asian people fucking love karaoke!! On the beach there were tents set up, I guess as some kind of museum to the war - all of the signs were in Vietnamese and we didn't want to get suckered into spending any money so we kept our distance. We pretty much just like, used the resort bathrooms, took a few pictures and bounced.
What's with the tents?! Why do Asian people love Karaoke so much??? Why are we even HERE? The view was neat, though, I'll give 'em that.
But I'm pleased to say the trip DID get more awesome, as we headed onto the Hai Van Pass a coastal highway that snakes up, up, up into the mountains. At the top of the peak was an old fort, first a French outpost during their rule of Vietnam in the early 20th Century and then used by US & South Vietnamese troops during the American/Vietnamese War.
You can see the pass in the back. Brian says he thinks I look like a photojournalist in this picture. I think I look like a goofball but he's nice! This juncture was sort of the halfway mark of the country marking the change between the cooler mountain climates of the North and the tropical winds of the South. Coming down the other side of the mountain was incredible, the hills behind us and ahead, the brightest blue sea and untouched white beaches.
We saw this little cove and begged our driver to pause and let us take some photos. There were a few fishermen rowing around in traditional, what we might even call primitive, boats but otherwise nothing but pure nature. It was like stepping back in time! It often feels like there's not an inch of land on the whole earth not being scooped up for development and it was breathtaking to see this spot still so preserved.
It'll be interesting to see how long this remains intact. Our trip then wound us through DaNang, a city on the rise in Vietnam. Once a major port and hub for revolutionaries during the war, it's now the "Silicon Valley of the East" with rapid urbanization and industry and lots of sprawl on either end, every inch of coastline now giving way to skyscrapers or increasingly opulent seaside resorts. We paused at My Khe Beach which was a famous spot for R&R for American soldiers stationed around Da Nang and again, underwhelming. A beach is a beach, I guess?
Unless, of course, the beach has us because we are adorable.
Also, while in DaNang, we stopped at a random store for several minutes and our driver left us idling at the curb while he went inside and...did something. It may have involved his cell phone? Or it was a drug drop. Whatever he was doing it was very weird and very much not on the itinerary.
He did not just abandon us there, as we feared, and after his little errand, we stopped at the Marble Mountains, a cluster of marble and limestone hills just south of the city. Originally a source of marble mining, Vietnamese Buddhists turned one of the mountains into a series of natural shrines, carving statues of Buddha, temples and other religious icons right into caves on the mountanside.
This stop was surprisingly beautiful and home to one of the most bizarrely memorable interactions of the trip. To get to the entrance to the mountain you must pass rows and rows of vendors selling trinkets and marble sculptures, which we learned were not even mined on the hills but instead imported from China. We navigated our way through the sellers to the restrooms, walked past what we assumed was a pile of rags when all of a sudden from under the pile leaped a human being who jumped right in front of us, held out her hand and yelled "MONEY!!" She was collecting fees to use the bathroom (not an uncommon occurance abroad) and both of us were so incredibly startled. We realized she probably lived in that pile of rags and this yucky job was her whole life but it was SO weird and kind of hilarious how she just BURST out and screamed MONEY! The whole experience was strange and sad and scary and funny all at once. Kind of a perfect encapsulation of traveling in the third world, I suppose!
Fi-yi-yiiiinally our trip reached its end destination and what was to become our very favorite city on our trip: Hoi An!
Hoi An is an impeccably preserved old port city, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is definitely touristy, more upscale and sanitized, with a a bit of an Epcot Center feel which might be off putting to some, but we were all in. After the bustle of Hanoi and sleeping on a boat and the pork and the barfing we were ready for some comfort.
We checked int our charming hotel, the Ruby Villa, grabbed some bikes and headed into town, about a 10 minute pedal. There were still a number of motorbikes around the town, but lots of pedal bikes, too and the historic downtown area - about 10 square blocks or so - was blocked off from motorbike traffic. And no one locks their bikes, either. Every day we'd just abandon them somewhere in town, wander all around and come back nine hours later to find them unscathed. Ok, I maaaaay have panicked a few times and gotten worried they'd been stolen and made Brian go back with me to check but sure enough, they were always right where we left them. You can take me on vacation but you can NEVER make me chill!
We spent that afternoon and all of the following day doing what we most love, wandering a new city, popping into shops, stopping for meals and drinks and just soaking it all in. Hoi An is THE cutest of all the towns in the world, windy narrow streets, brightly painted storefronts, boats bobbing in the river, trees bursting with vivid pink bougainvillea flowers and lanterns strung up everywhere. It was hard to make it four feet without me pausing to snap just one more photo.
We had several meals at Morning Glory Restaurant, where I discovered my new favorite food, cao lau - a noodle dish specific to Hoi An. YOM. Another favorite spot was the Reaching Out Teahouse. Reaching Out is part of a local organization that provides job training and life skills for locals with disabilities. In addition to classes, they run a craft shop (pictured above) that sells artisan goods made by their students, with a focus on fair trade practices and have a tea shop operated entirely by deaf or hearing limited students. They encourage patrons to sip tea in silence, give cute little blocks with writing that you can show to the staff to make requests and teach sign language for some basic queries. All in a gorgeous, restful setting. We loved it!
All proceeds from the tea and craft shops go back to the organization and if you'd like to learn more about it, their website is below, check it out!!
As an old trading city, Hoi An has a lot of foreign influence, notably Chinese and Japanese. On our day of wandering we visited a few Chinese Meeting Houses - essentially like a church social hall - and also got to see some of the old homes of merchants, dating back to the early 1800's.
The ceilings of the meeting houses were all hung with these beautiful red coils, we learned they were incense ropes. Families would buy lengths of coil and burn them in remembrance of deceased family members. Usually I hate incense and it makes me sneeze, but here all of the incense was cinnamon based and smelled warm and delicious.
But that was pretty much the extent of our culture, we basically just ate and drank our way around town! We ended each evening with beverages on various patios, watching dusk fall over the town, before biking back to our cozy hotel.
We were pretty much charmed by this city the second we arrived and so glad we decided to spend the longest amount of time here. It was nice to be able to unpack and chill a bit. While in Hoi An we also had some custom clothes tailored which was a wild experience I can't wait to share, did a bike tour, took a cooking class and shopped a LOT! Those tales and much more ahead.
I loved this little town so much, now I'm scrolling through these photos and getting so nostalgic! We have to go back, Kate.
But until then, I'll just enjoy this Monday in the real, non-vacation world. EW! Have a great one, peeps.
xoxo Liz Ho