We arrived at Saigon airport and jumped straight on the bus to Ben Than market which would pass right by our homestay in District 3.
Some amusement on the bus as a gaggle of young backpackers tried to pay the bargain 5000 dong (20 cents) fare with a $20 bill! The bus driver just looked at them and shook his head in disbelief.
Fifteen minutes later we jump off the bus in District 3 and walk to Ms Yang’s our homestay for the next few days. Once again we were welcomed with open arms and lots of cuddles! This really is our home from home in Saigon!
We have just a few days in the city this time so we just catch with M/s Yang and her sisters who take us out to some more of their favourite eating places in D3. Having expressed our love for the seafood soup “Bun Mam Chau Doc” I am now known simply as Bun Mam Man!
After spending a few nights at Ms Yangs, it is time for us to jump on the train north to Da Nang. It is a pleasant enough journey, but we are happy to arrive, find a taxi and then drive back down along China Beach and over the Marble mountains to Hoi An.
Hoi An was a last minute choice whilst we awaited our flight to New Zealand. It was a bit of an impulse decision. We spend our time exploring the town, the surrounding countryside and beaches. It was hot! Very hot! Temperatures were in the high 30s with high humidity.
The homestay we had originally chosen was nice , but too far out of the old town and it lacked a pool which in this heat, was essential. After a few days we stumbled across a brand new hotel, the Travelodge. It had fantastic rooms, great beds and, above all a large indoor pool. I think we were only their second guests. The pool was very welcome after a long hot day tramping the streets or cycling in the countryside and we made good use of it. Most of the time is was like having our own private pool as no one else seemed to have discovered the hotel yet.
The old town has changed little since our last visit fifteen years ago except that there are ten times as many tourists on the streets and twenty times the number of tailors! The river is still heaving with activity, but now more focused on tourists than trading. The major industry at night seems to be selling candles for people to float down the river.
Hoi An attracts so many visitors for good reason. It is arguably the most photogenic town in Asia. The problem is that taking a photo is so very difficult because of all the people! The best time is early morning when the markets are in full swing and there are fewer people.
Excellent food is everywhere in town, but it is easily the most expensive place to eat in Vietnam. More geared to western tastes than most other places, it does have some inventive cuisine and cooking schools are big business here. It seems like every TV chef from Anthony Bourdain to Rick Stein has been here and been “amazed” by the cuisine. A side effect of televising these places is a 50% hike in prices and huge queues! One Banh Mi place featured by Bourdain had queues 20 metres long and was double the price of any other – can a sandwich really be that good?
However, search around the and there is an array of decent places to eat at all levels, without the hype, the queues and the inflated prices.
We spent more than a few of our days exploring the Old Town, the river and markets area, its temples, merchant houses etc. for which Hoi An is renowned before heading out in the surrounding countryside. There is a lot to see here!
We borrowed a couple of bikes from the hotel and set off for the beach through the rice paddies and villages. After many wrong turns and dead ends we saw quite a lot of the countryside and eventually made it to the beach.
On arrival we were immediately besieged by bicycle touts all demanding 5,000 dong to mind our bikes. I am all for free enterprise but when these women jump out in front of us demanding money and grabbing at us, it made us realise this was not the place for us. I am sure there are more tranquil spots around but we failed to find them!
Despite our reservations about Hoi An being over touristy, we did enjoy our time there. The crowds do get a bit much at times, but that is the price you pay for visiting a UNESCO world heritage site.
Main tips for visiting:
- Get out and about early before the crowds and the heat
- Don’t miss a trip out to the countryside. Despite being close to the town much is still unspoilt.
- Bicycles are a great way to see the countryside but the old town is best seen on foot.
- Staying just outside of the old town is ideal as it does get very busy, particularly at night.
It is time to move on so we hire a car to take us over the Hai Van Pass and the Marble mountains to Hue ($50 US)
Our trip took maybe 4/5 hours in total. All a bit hazy along China Beach but the caves and temples of the Marble Mountains were quite impressive, if crowded but definitely worth a visit. It is worth taking the elevator to the top as this saves a long, hot walk up!
After exploring the Marble Mountain complex we are keen to move on to Hue. However, keen to earn a commission, our driver takes us to fish restaurant on the beach, but one look at the fish gently warming nicely in the blazing sun and we were quickly on our way!
Our fourth visit to Hue. Would it be our first without rain?
The answer is yes! Much like How An it was blazing hot. Despite this we rented a couple of bikes and headed out to see the Imperial Citadel and a few of the the tombs we had missed before. all worth seeing but probably better done when at a cooler time of year (sadly this usually means rain as well).
As a reward for braving the citadel in the heat we treat ourselves to lunch at one of our favourite places in Vietnam, Lac Thien.
Our fourth or fifth visit and the food is as great as ever. The owner is deaf-mute but has amazing non- verbal communication skills and is a great guy to have a “chat” with. His party trick is to open four or five bottles of beer at once using his trademark wood, nut and bolt bottle openers. Quite something. Order a couple of beers and he will most likely give you and autographed opener as a unique souvenir (I now have 3!!).
The food really is of an excellent quality all freshly prepared. The Banh Xeo are the best I have tasted during 3 months in Vietnam. THE place to stop for lunch after a best to the citadel.
Hue is often overlooked in favour of its more popular, but crowded neighbour Hoi An. a mistake I think but if possible, try and visit both.