Mandy and the World

Find out what I've been up to on my overseas adventure!

Hangin’ in Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong

on May 16, 2013

Our next stop: Hoi An– a quaint little town in central Vietnam. It’s a town with gorgeous old world heritage protected buildings, its own incredible food culture and a tailor in every second shop. The locals are friendly and smiling, though you come to expect every greeting of ‘Hello!’ to be followed by ‘Buy something?’

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I was very excited to continue our foodventures and Tara was very excited to hit up the tailors for some made-to-measure winter coats. On our first day, we hadn’t walked far when Tara spotted a blazer and a coat design she liked and we went into the shop. In a matter of minutes, she had agreed to buy those two items, been measured and upsold to purchase a skirt and a dress as well! Continuing down the street past tailor upon tailor, we saw many other nice coats, and Tarz then decided she really wanted a grey coat as well, so picked another store and did some more damage, with all the clothes to be ready for pickup within 2 days!

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We had a lazy afternoon meandering around the Old Town, admiring the beautiful shop fronts, enjoying the colourful lanterns adorning the streets and walking across the famous Japanese covered bridge. We had our first taste of Hoi An at the Morning Glory restaurant run by a local third generation chef and sampled the amazing local ‘white rose’ dumplings (rice flour dumplings filled with shrimp), fried crab meat wontons and some rice paper rolls which were all incredible. I must have caught the shopping bug because after lunch I found some beautiful rice paper paintings that I couldn’t resist and also bought some earrings together with Tara (shaped like cutlery so aptly themed to suit the foodventures!)…

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As we meandered back to the hotel past the market, we had a sense of de je vu as the exact same conversation unfolded 3 times in a row with 3 different ladies…

It went along the lines of:

‘Hello! Where you from?’

‘Australia.’

‘You very beautiful. When you come to Hoi An?’

‘Today.’

‘How long you stay?’

‘3 days.’

‘You want shopping?’

‘No thank you.’

‘You come and see my shop, very cheap price.’

‘No thanks, don’t need anything.’

‘Looking is free!’

Continue walking, smiling and shaking your head while saying ‘no thank you’ until out of earshot… aaaaand repeat x 3. So we decided to avoid the general vicinity of the market after that… And tell everyone we were leaving Hoi An tomorrow. Harmless, just a little annoying!

Despite its old town feel, there is a surprising variety of nightlife in Hoi An. There are a lot of bars with the 2-for-1 deals like in Nha Trang, but outrageously, there are also bars with 100,000 dong all-you-can-drink deals! (That’s about AU$5!) Who knows what is in those drinks though, I heard mixed reviews with some people saying the rum and cokes were fine and others reporting they tasted like petrol… (Tarz and I never made it to one to say conclusively). Many of the bars didn’t seem to do so well, Backpacker Bar and the excitingly named Good and Cheap Bar were always empty (but check out their flyers below!), but Meet Market tended to have people in it, probably because it had the wittiest name.

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We randomly wandered into a benefit for street dogs later that night for VAWO- Vietnam Animal Welfare Organisation (www.vnanimalwelfare.org), run by a group of expats and locals. Especially for the animals, we drank mystery punch for ~AU$2 a cup and bought raffle tickets, but when we didn’t win anything we boycotted the place (jokes). We walked home spotting (read: nearly stepping on) a variety of Hoi An ‘wildlife’ including about 5 frogs, 1 giant rat and a cockroach!

Our second day in Hoi An was spent visiting the Cham ruins at My Son (pronounced ‘Me Soon’). Our guide Yong was a colourful character, expressing everything he said with an air of it being the most exciting sentence he’d ever spoken. He said in order for us to stay together we needed a group name. Today, we would be Team Tiger, and that made him our Tiger King. He told us in a most jovial way that the weather forecast out at My Son was predicted to be 39 degrees that day! It certainly felt like that was the case when we stepped off the bus… Unfortunately I’d put my hat in the laundry so felt I needed to buy a new one at this point. I settled for a Vietnamese straw variety.

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So there were a couple of groups of ruins that were more intact but most of them were, well… really ruined. The Viet Cong used this area as a military base during the war so sadly it got heavily bombed by the Americans. The site was very interesting however (especially for someone like me who has a weird facination with temples and ruins…) and the intact parts of buildings and sculptures were very beautiful. Most of the remaining sculptures of deities were missing heads though, as the French took them and now they are apparently in the Louvre!

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The Cham followed a form of Hinduism, and worshipped Shiva (which Yong said dramatically as ‘Shivaaaaaaaaahhhh!’ with big arm gestures every time).  There were also a lot of big linga (phallic symbols) lying around (‘Lingaaaaaaaahhh!’), including shells from the US bombings (which Yong called ‘American lingaaaaaaaahhh!’). The Cham had a unique style of construction which hasn’t quite been figured out yet- their bricks use no mortar between them and withstand weathering incredibly well. There are thoughts that the bricks were joined using tree resin, or that they were laid when not dry, then were carved and somehow fired when in the structure but no one is certain.

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Our next day’s adventure was a Vietnamese cooking class through The Market restaurant (owned by the same chef that runs Morning Glory). We started the day with a tour of the market and were shown the fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. We learned how to pick good produce, how to tell things apart (eg. Anise basil vs lemon basil), what ingredients are traditionally used for what and in which combinations. Lastly we went through the meat market and seafood market and tried to avoid getting fish gut juice in our thongs, before heading back to the restaurant for the class. We felt like Master Chef contestants with about 30 of us in our matching aprons in a big room, each with our own little bench, stove top, utensil drawer and pile of ingredients.

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The class was run by Lulu who had been a chef for 18 years (since she was 14!). It turned out to be part ‘How to cook delicious Vietnamese food’ and part ‘How to find and keep a husband’ (which are kind of the same thing in Vietnam!). We learned how to make a shrimp and cabbage broth that our future mother-in-laws would be proud of, a marinated chicken skewer with green mango salad and the local delicacy, Hoi An crispy pancake. The pancake is made of rice flour and coconut milk with some shrimp, pork and bamboo shoots, cooked in a LOT of oil to make it crispy and then eaten with greens and pickled vegetables in rice paper. Delish!

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Our last day in Hoi An we had planned to do a walking food tour that had been recommended by a friend. It’s run by an Aussie expat who takes you out to a village market and then you sample all kinds of street food from the local vendors. It sounded really good, but unfortunately our booking hadn’t gone through (which we discovered when our pick up never arrived), so we were up and checked out of our hotel by 7am for no reason and had 5 hours to kill before our million hour (okay, 19 hour) bus to Hanoi. We filled in our time attacking the breakfast buffet, hunting down a bakery to buy bus snacks, getting a massage and eating one last bowl of the local cao lau (smoked rice noodles with pork and croutons) for lunch. (Hmmmm… until I wrote that down I didn’t notice that 75% of that was food related!! Not that I’m surprised…). We were accosted on the street by the spa lady – she saw us looking as we walked by, rushed out and immediately knocked about 40% off the price for a one hour massage for both of us as we were her first customers of the day. How could we say no?! As she said, ‘Lucky for you, lucky for me!’ 🙂 and as a bonus, they had the cutest puppy ever!

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Our bus journey that afternoon started on a normal seated bus to Hue for 4 hours. The scenery on the way was gorgeous, with coastline on one side and rice paddies and mountains on the other. Hue looked like a beautiful town but unfortunately we couldn’t fit it in this time, we only got in the usual bit of loitering on the street outside the bus agent before we changed to a sleeper bus. There was further waiting around on the bus with the frazzled bus driver trying to figure out where to put everybody as the bus was overbooked. There were lots of locals, babies and small children talking, crying and whinging so it was quite rowdy to begin with! In the midst of this the bus driver tried to tell a dutch girl she had to sit on the floor for four hours because there was no room but she flat out refused seeing as she had paid for her tourist price ticket. Tensions were running high, but eventually it was sorted and we started on the last 12 hour leg to Hanoi.

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I had a terrible sleep on the bus – it felt more cramped than usual and the road was horribly bumpy. When we arrived in Hanoi, a dude offered a taxi. I asked ‘how much?’ before we left and he said he ‘meter’, so we jumped in. Turns out there are some crazy dodgy meters out there, as we got absolutely fleeced! The fare was 320,000 dong or about AU$16 (almost as much as our 19 hour bus ticket!) to drive for 5 minutes or so to our hostel. We were fuming but too tired to argue. We stayed at a nice place called ‘Golden Time’ where Anh at reception earned quote of the day by asking me where I was from, looking confused when I said ‘Australia’ and replying ‘But you look like Asia!’ Bahahahaaa!

After freshening up, we set out to whizz around for an epic day in Hanoi as we really only had a day and a half there. We tried to go to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum to see him all embalmed, but it was already closed by 10.30am. Instead, we had a look around the somewhat abstract and slightly odd Ho Chi Minh Museum, where we observed many copies of old documents written in Vietnamese, some strange scuptures and displays of completely unrelated things (like volcanoes and fruit) and exciting relics like Uncle Ho’s exercise equipment.

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In the afternoon we went to see the water puppet theatre which was beautiful- it’s a Vietnamese art where musicians play and puppets dance traditional dances or depict folk stories on a pool of water. The puppeteers are all standing in the water behind a screen. We also went out to the Ethnology Museum, but were pretty rushed as it takes half an hour each way to get there (which for the record, in a non-rip-off cab is only about 100,000 dong each way!) The museum shows artefacts and facts about the different cultural groups in Vietnam which was really interesting. There is also an outdoor exhibit featuring displays of traditional homes but unfortunately we didn’t get time to see it. The evening of our big day was spent catching up with a couple of my friends who live in Hanoi for dinner which was lovely, but we were well and truly spent by the time we got back to the hotel!

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The next morning we set out on our trip to Halong Bay (on which Tara upgraded us to the fanciest boat and bungalow as my early birthday present, lucky me!). After 4 hours, one rest stop and another short stop by the road to pick up about 20 pineapples in 2 large bags, we jolted past a giant sign proclaiming ‘Welcome to Halong City!’ and I wondered if the city had even been built yet. The whole area seemed to be under construction, with roadside vistas of dirt piles, large cleared expanses, scattered concrete pipes and a conglomerate of lorries, steamrollers and earth movers greeting us. In the distance over the vibrant green rice paddies we could see the majestic rise of limestone karsts emerging from the sea. I guess Halong City hasn’t felt the need to pretty itself up with a natural wonder of the world sitting on its doorstep drawing tourists in their droves regardless…

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In Halong City we changed from bus to small boat, and took that to the junk- our home for the night.  Tara, myself and 3 German guys (Tom, Andreas and Reiner) were only 5 guests on the whole boat! We cruised out into the bay on the junk to our first stop ‘Surprising Cave’ (the French explorer who discovered it was apparently surprised at what he found). It was a pretty impressive cave, huge caverns inside, and our guide Hoi pointed out many rock images (the majority of which actually just looked like rocks, but we’d occasionally all say, ‘hmm, kinda, maybe if you stand at this angle…’).

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The afternoon was whiled away kayaking from the floating village and visiting a small beach densely packed with tourists. There was a lookout up about 400 stairs from the beach so I went up with Reiner and saw just how many boats were out on the bay. I assume some were full, but I wondered how many were nowhere near capacity like ours! I’m not sure if there is any regulation about the number of boats, but it appears they are only allowed in certain areas which I guess is a good thing.

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Back on the junk that night, we had a mini cooking class with Hoi and made some fried spring rolls which were amazing. Later the crew set up some fishing rods with lures and a big light under the small boat to attract squid. We tried our hand at squid fishing for a while, dangling the lures up and down under the light as we’d been instructed and didn’t see anything other than tiny fish. Meanwhile all the crew had gone back on the boat and we thought ‘maybe this is just a good diversion tactic?’ There was probably some program they wanted to watch on the TV inside and left us out on the deck, laughing at us naively dangling the rods about, saying ‘Haha look at the tourists, they think they are going to catch a squid!’

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After failing at Squid Fishing 101, we thought what better way for a bunch of Australians and Germans to pass the time than to play drinking games! The guys taught us a German game, kind of like Cheat but using dice and we introduced them to King’s Cup, which unfortunately I then proceeded to lose… Between games there was an alleged squid sighting, so Tom went down to the small boat, fiercely determined to catch one. After a while my patience was waning and I was ready for Round 2 of Kings but all of a sudden we saw ink squirting through the water and Tom hauled out a squid! At least 8cm long… but regardless, it was catch of the day! We celebrated with more drinking games then everyone ended up dancing gangnam style before hitting the hay.

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The next day we went to Cat Ba Island where we were taken to Cat Ba National Park for a spot of impromptu hiking which we had not been forewarned about nor packed appropriately for. We thought surely it can’t be that strenuous if they just get all the tourists to do it… Neither of us had walking shoes so were both in thongs and proceeded to the lookout trying not to slip or stub our toes (unsuccessfully!). It was actually a fairly steady uphill climb, and in the tropical humidity, sweat was pouring from everywhere in a matter of minutes! The trail was mostly steps, followed by a short bit of rock scrambling before reaching the antiquated lookout tower atop the mountain.

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The tower’s stairs were only really wide enough for 1 person, so passing others coming down was challenging with backpacks taking up more room and being conscious of not leaning too far over the rusted and very questionably supportive railing to avoid plummeting to the rocks below… I crept up each flight of stairs gripping the rails on both sides, concentrating on trying not to trip or to let my thongs fall off and hoping that the metal was stronger than it looked!

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As we neared the top, I tried to suppress visions of the whole tower just toppling off the mountain loaded with tourists. When we reached the ‘platform’ at the peak I just burst out laughing- there was no floor, just a few wooden palings crisscrossed over the metal frame, not attached to anything (no, of course not, that would be far too effortful…) There was also a gaping hole in the middle where you could look straight down to the little rocky plateau we had just ascended from. Classic. Tara sensibly said ‘No way!’, while I side-shuffled my way out on a paling that was directly over the metal frame, not letting go of the side rail. You know that feeling when you’re really high up that if you let go, at that very moment a freak gust of wind will come and knock you off balance and you’ll tumble off your ‘safe’ little wooden paling and fall to your doom? Yeah, that’s what I felt like…! So I didn’t dwell up there for too long, and after Tara snapped some pics for evidence I quickly side-shuffled back to the stairs and inched down towards the glorious ground.

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In the afternoon, we stopped at Monkey Island. There were no monkeys (to Tara’s immense relief) but there was a heap of rubbish. It was pretty sad to see a nice little island looking like such a dump… We moved on to our home for the night, Nam Cat Island, where we stayed in bungalows on a gorgeous (and clean) little beach surrounded by towering limestone cliffs and clear blue water. The rooms were new and smelled of pine and looked directly onto the beach.

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The bathroom was sparking clean and at first appeared wonderful. However showering turned out to be quite the ordeal! The shower head sprayed out a mist so fine you could barely feel it touching your skin, and the temperature swung from cold to scalding hot every couple of minutes. This resulted in several showering interludes where in order to keep my epidermis, I had to point the boiling mist at the wall testing every now and then with a finger whether it was safe to again direct at my head. I ended up converting it to come out of the tap below and sat on the floor under the more significant but still weak flow of water trying to get the last of the shampoo out of my hair, again with temperature control interludes. After at least 15 minutes of cursing and sighing in exasperation, I decided to forgo conditioning and left the bathroom with a defeated ‘Good luck…’ to Tara. She went in armed with a water bottle which she filled several times to pour on her head for the purpose of hair washing, luckily realizing the occasions where steam was streaming out the top of the bottle and remembering to add some extra cold water!

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The final day of our Halong trip was spent on a variety of transportation to get back to Hanoi. A simple combination of small boat from Nam Cat to the south harbour at Cat Ba, small bus to big bus across the island to the north harbour, small boat to the junk, cruise to Halong, then back to the small boat again to the mainland and onto a final minibus back to Hanoi. Phew!

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On our last half day in Hanoi, we went earlier to see Uncle Ho and this time got into the mausoleum (along with about a gazillion other people, some tourists but most Vietnamese). It was a slow but steady moving procession in and out of the mausoleum and then through the presidential palace grounds and back out. Ho Chi Minh embalmed was a little different to what I expected. I guess I was picturing the shrivelled up old mummies I’d seen in Peru or the ‘bog-bodies’ in Ireland, but he was in pristine condition and looked more like a Madame Tussaud’s wax model sleeping in his glass cabinet. Pretty incredible. Apparently he goes to Russia for maintenance every 2 years or so, looks like they’re doing a pretty good job. They are the expert communist embalmers I suppose!

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Our last stop was the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university, a beautiful set of buildings and grounds built in traditional Chinese style. They used to teach Confucian principles. Apparently back in the day, the students would sit their school exam then a national exam and if they passed those, they got to be examined by the King himself who asked them a question and then decided if they passed or failed.  Talk about put on the spot! Thanking our lucky stars that our exams didn’t involve one-on-one questioning with the monarch, we went off to the airport where Tara lamented returning home without the 2 souvenirs she wanted most- a Vietnamese baby and a water buffalo. It was sad to part ways after an un-pho-gettable trip (had to get one more in before leaving Vietnam!) but we had an amazing time and leave with not just some great memories, but also newfound cooking/husband-pulling skills… 🙂

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4 responses to “Hangin’ in Hoi An, Hanoi and Halong

  1. Natasha says:

    your post is certainly inspiring. i am currently in bangkok and was going to head to vietnam thereafter but i have decided to house-sit two westies in france instead. i hope someday soon i will be able to visit vietnam and when i do, i will certainly look for your post to reference 🙂

    • mandyhill25 says:

      Thanks Natasha! Glad you found it useful. What I saw of Vietnam in the short time I was there was amazing and I would definitely go back! Hope you enjoy it whenever you manage to get there! Safe travels 🙂

  2. leegambleLee says:

    Looks like you’re having a great time, there is NO WAY I would have made it up that tower!

  3. Lelsey says:

    A great Blog as usual Mandy. I am waiting for the next one already !!!!Love Nanny and Pop.

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