Category Archives: Vietnam

An Asian Highlight – Hoi An, Vietnam

As we approached Da Nang for landing I looked out onto the beach from thirty thousand feet and found myself imagining what it would have been like for the US Marines that (in)famously landed here barely 50 years ago. However, I was now looking out onto a vast slither of golden sand that lined the city’s boundary with the South China Sea, a modern south east Asian city gleaming under the late afternoon sun. Gone is the dense jungle and swamps interspersed with the occasional settlement of wooden shacks and short little people in pointy hats that I had grown up seeing in Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket and even Forrest Gump that for most of my life had formed the basis of my knowledge of this distant yet historically significant land. Now there are tree lined avenues, high-rise offices, five-star resorts and a couple of million people thrown in for good measure. However, interesting as Da Nang, Vietnam’s third largest city may have seemed, we were not actually staying here.

Instead we would be staying in the nearby town of Hoi An. Hoi An is small place, comfortably traversed on foot or by bicycle. At it’s heart lies an ancient old town, a UNESCO world heritage site, famous for its tailors, architectural splendour and lanterns. Nowadays it’s also become a tourist Mecca on the south east Asia backpacker trail, the flashpacker trail, and the Asian Tour group trail. There is nothing Indiana Jones about travel here. People of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities visit, for good reason. Hoi An is quite simply, absolutely beautiful.

I’ve found that I haven’t been particularly keen on touristy places in Asia over the last few years, for example we absolutely hated Bali (but loved Indonesia) and avoid Thailand like we would the Plague. Tourism has helped to lift millions out of abject poverty in the last decade or two, and continues to do so, but in some of the most popular and profitable destinations in Asia I’ve often questioned at what price have these economic gains come at?

Now this is why we liked Hoi An so much. A place that has prospered as a result of the surge in visitors over recent years but doesn’t (yet) seem to have completely sold it’s soul. For south east Asia, this made a refreshing change. Some of those that came here when Vietnam reopened to tourists in the early 1990’s may bemoan the changes, rumour has it that the quality of the suits and dresses on offer has deteriorated as profit margins have soared, but then this isn’t Savile Row. One traveller was so disgruntled by the changes he\she went so far as to effectively sabotage the town’s Wikitravel page!

Whilst the original community have long since left the old town, which is now loaded with shops, restaurants and tailors, the architecture remains majestic. Influenced by Chinese, Japanese and later, European traders, the town’s narrow streets and low rise buildings have largely been renovated, helping to create a first-world Asian-Mediterranean relaxed atmosphere, bristling with culture, colour and cuisine.

The old town comes alive at night, illuminated by the thousands of multicoloured lanterns that line the roads, alleys and buildings. Motorbikes are banned (although only until 9:30pm, a bit of a downer that needs addressing), there is an absence of massage parlours, loud karaoke bars and only a small number of street hawkers that are often so prevalent elsewhere in this part of the world. The food was as good as any we’ve had in Asia, with many restaurants offering very reasonable pricing in the some of the most gorgeous settings we’ve been able to enjoy in 5 years of living and travelling in the far east.

By day we hired bicycles, exploring local villages and countryside. Within less than fifteen minutes of cycling outside the old town, we found ourselves alone, on narrow country paths and off the usual tourist trail. Locals in these villages were as friendly and welcoming as any we’ve come across, anywhere. Children, the elderly, farmers and even construction workers beamed as they excitedly shouted out “hello” from all sorts of distances as the Plummer family cycled past schools, homes, rice paddies and major highways!

A bike ride to the nearby beach proved fruitless, courtesy of our failure to consult a map properly and my unfailing belief and overconfidence in my personal human GPS abilities. We tried to make it again the next day.

Which brings us on to Agoda, who screwed up almost catastrophically with our hotel reservation. As a result, we were given a free upgrade to one of the most expensive and nicest hotels in the area. A particular perk of this was finding out that the ‘free shuttle bus to the beach’ provided by the hotel was actually a chauffeur driven Mercedes. Consequently, whilst everyone else walked, cycled, or flagged down a cab to the beach, we rocked up in our chauffeur driven blacked-out Mercedes limousine. Needless to say we pointed and laughed at all those losers! (Edit – I am joking here, of course!)

And that folks, was 5 days in Hoi An. There are few places we would actually go back to in Asia, but Hoi An is one of them.

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Chaotic but strangely charming (for a day or two!) – Hanoi, Vietnam

I didn’t know much about Hanoi before visiting.

As it turned out, there’s not that much to see and do as such. Hanoi is no London, Beijing or Tokyo. Visiting Hanoi is not necessarily so much about taking in the sights, but much more about taking it in. As our driver tried to navigate through the narrow streets and one-way systems of Hanoi’s old quarter as we arrived at 8pm on a Saturday night, we quickly realised that Hanoi is alive, teeming with life, everywhere.

From the street vendors who have finished for the day and are now eating their noodles (and lord knows what else!) on the narrow pavements sat on chairs barely 30 centimetres high, inches from the humdrum and roar of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of motorbikes that claim these streets as their own, the transportation of choice for 10 year-olds, 80 year-olds, families of five and everybody else in between, speeding round at all hours. To the hordes of young people living it up in the old quarter, drinking their 20p beers, rocking out to Gaga and Maroon 5 who are blasting from the tightly-packed strip of bars, whose customers spill out onto the streets, roads closed, human traffic jams forming in the busiest parts. Then there’s the newly retired Australian couple, slightly bewildered, just trying to make sense of it all, hoping to avoid getting mown down every time they step off the crowded pavements, slightly in wonder, slightly terrified, awestruck at how different the Vietnam they grew up knowing in the 50’s and 60’s is, to the Vietnam they are in right now, in 2015. Adelaide is kind of wonderful in comparison, but kind of boring. This is Hanoi, this is 21st century Asia.

There’s some poorly maintained museums/propaganda fests. There’s some grand old colonial buildings. There’s some very nice restaurants and hotels and a couple of lakes that you wouldn’t want to swim in. But what will be our everlasting memory of Hanoi?

The vibrancy and chaos.

Somehow it works. You always find where you want to go (so long as you’re not looking for the river – private joke) and you somehow never seem to get run over, despite often feeling as though death or serious injury is a real danger, only one wrong step away. You see wacky things all over the place, whether it’s a workman propping his wooden ladder up against power cables in the middle of one of Hanoi’s busiest crossroads as the frantic traffic streams past, or two guys having an afternoon nap under a tank. To sitting in a nice, but cheap restaurant eating your dinner and then having the Prime Minister of Norway and her entourage on an official state visit come and join you for dinner, sat metres away from you. Then there’s the pop stars dressed in Tuxedos singing patriotic anthems atop the remains of downed American warplanes, shot down in a bygone age. It was mad, but weirdly wonderful.

Hanoi was kind of horrible, but kind of quirky with a charm. People were really quite nice as well, even as they were staring you down speeding towards you at 30mph, with impact seeming imminent.

Would we go back? Not in a hurry.

Are we glad we went?  Oh yes we are.

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