Vietnam & Cambodia Trip – Stop Four – Hoi An, Vietnam
On February 7th we once again packed our bags, checked out of the hotel, and drove to another city. It was an adventurous drive from Hue to Hoi An, being stopped by the police at one point. The route took us over over the Truong Son Mountain Range through the Hai Van Pass. We stopped to take some pictures of the Lang Co Fishing Village at the start of the pass. The pull off area was full of other tourists doing the same since most locals skip driving over the mountain now that a tunnel has been built.
We did not know about the pass prior to the drive, however once we started up the mountain side we remembered seeing it on Top Gear. Once the car started winding up the narrow roads we remembered how the hosts talked about the beauty of this stretch of road. It was remarkable, and slightly scary. It is known as the Ocean Cloud Pass, a name which become clear when we reached the stop at the top. One side was a mist-filled forest and off to the other we could see the beach and bright sun. For us it marked the line between the cold rainy segment of our trip and the warm, often hot, portion that remained. We stopped here at a market area clearly set up for tourists, across from former French and American bunkers. While we were there a couple were on top of a bunker having wedding photographs taken. Our guide explained that in Vietnam most wedding parties have there photos taken as much as a month before the wedding.
On the other side of the pass we stopped at the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Danang, the largest city in Central Vietnam. The Cham people were an early Vietnamese civilization and the museum, while small, has the largest collection of the sandstone sculptures. We wandered around for a bit then continued on along the coast. This took us past the area know as China Beach and many new high end beach resorts. We also drove past Marble Mountain, which is actually five formations rich in marble and limestone. We did not stop to hike it but did shop at one of the tourist shops selling a ton of different marble objects. They had huge statues taller than me, tables made of marble, small carved figures in every size you can imagine and jewelry. We saw some people working on pieces and purchased a few souvenirs.
The shop was our last stop before reaching Hoi An. The historic city is clearly a vacation spot close to the beaches on the bank of the Thu Bon River. Right away I felt like we were on a vacation, not just traveling. We stayed three nights at a resort style hotel with a central pool and the rooms divided between several different buildings. It was great to open the doors onto the balcony and enjoy the warm weather. We were then completely on our own for the next two days in the city and started this time out by walking from the hotel into the historical old town section of the city.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the evening the streets were scooter-free; it was so quiet, even with all the other tourists walking around, after days of loud scooters and motorcycles everywhere. We had dinner and by the time we were done ,the sun had set and the streets were lit up by lanterns. Even before they were lit up it was a beautiful city but once they were glowing it felt magical.
Chris’ Comments: Hai Van Pass is the stuff of dreams. While it’s true the locals don’t use it, you have to travel it if you’re driving through the area. The views and perceivable climate change have only been matched, in my life, by the windward and leeward sides of Big Island, Hawaii. The married couple getting their portraits done on top of the turret is one of the highlights of the trip for me. It’s a very vivid memory and one I’m glad I experienced.
Hoi An is everything you picture when you think a southeastern Asian resort town. It’s combination of warm weather, old world charm, open air restaurants, shopping, and people who are obviously vacationing make it the perfectly place to relax after traveling for awhile. Were we beach people, I could see whiling away a week here. Actually, I take that back… Hoi An (and Saigon) are on our short list for places to revisit. Besides, I can spend my days renting a scooter for $5 and driving through the markets and streets (video coming). Great fun. Hoi An was also the place I ruined Melissa on Bánh mì for life. She’d never had one before and will probably spend her life looking for one as good as that one. :-( :-)
Museum of Cham Sculpture in Da Nang
Marble Mountain Stop & Hotel in Hoi An
Streets of Hoi An
Hoi An at Night
Second and Third Day in Hoi An
It felt great to have no rush to tour or move on to another city in the morning, so we slept in and enjoyed the breakfast buffet at the hotel. After that, we dropped some of our clothes off at a laundry and took the hotel shuttle to one of the many tailor shops. It was experience just like the guides and reviewers say, we explained some clothes we would like to have made, the staff sketched designs, we picked out fabric and within minutes we were being measured. Done placing our orders, we went in search of Madam Khanh – The Bah Mi Queen’s stall for lunch. The walk took us away from streets we had already wandered and to the most tasty sandwiches ever. Madam Khanh did not appear to speak any English so conversation was limited, but we left full and happy.
Done with our lunch, we wandered through more of the old town stopping by the Japanese Bridge before crossing over the river to walk along the opposite bank. All that was left to do was find a place to sit and watch the world go by, so we found a table at the Lantern Town Restaurant and ordered some drinks. It was a cozy courtyard decorated with lanterns set back from the busy streets. Not really hungry, I ordered what I thought would be a small Dragon Fruit Salad and Stuffed Squid. On our way to catch the shuttle back to the hotel, we stopped into a temple lit up. I am not sure exactly which temple it was but added to the wonderful experience of the city.
On our final day in Hoi An, we rented a scooter. For five dollars we were able to drive around the city all day. Our first stop was fittings for the clothes we ordered the day before. Most of the pieces were ready to go; my dresses only needing a few adjustments. Plenty of time until the final fitting, we took the road out of the city to the beach. As soon as we walked into the sand people offered us lounge chairs and drinks. I put my feet in the East Vietnam Sea, was almost knocked over by a wave, then elected to take a chair. Chris ordered an Iced Vietnamese Coffee and I decided to order “coconut juice” from the menu. I had not expected a whole coconut with a straw in it, but enjoyed sitting in the sun drinking it.
Before heading back to the tailor we attempted to find a place to get Bún and took the scooter into a new area of the city. There was a bunch of tables under an roof along the rivers edge, so we stopped. Unfortunately we were unable to communicate what we wanted to order other than Vietnamese Coffee. The result was a plate of rice crackers to go with our drinks.
At the end of the day, before returning the scooter, we managed to find ourselves driving through the packed central market. While we were barely crawling through the streets, it was very chaotic. Stalls spill into the streets as we had seen in other cities, but carts and tarps were in the middle of the streets piled with merchandise. If you wanted to buy it, it was for sale in these few blocks. We ended our stay in the city with dinner not far from the hotel, returned the scooter, and our new clothes were delivered to the hotel.
Beach Trip by Scooter and Final Fittings
Morning Glory – A little more expensive than other restaurants we visited in Vietnam, however still cheaper than other parts of the world. Once again, as with most every place with seating, it catered to tourists. We ordered a bunch of different plates to share including the White Rose Dumplings known as a specialty of Hoi An. We also had a skewered meat dish with rice paper that was very tasty with some vegetables that were completely new to us.
Nhà Hàng Nhân Nghĩa – A fairly typical restaurant in Hoi An. Small, catering to tourists with a mix of Vietnamese and Western dishes. Service was a bit slow, even for the Vietnamese coffee we ordered, but it was a nice place to sit and watch people wander by.
Madam Khanh: The Bah Mi Queen – This is just a small stall away from the very touristy areas of Hoi An but worth the search. We pointed at a few things and waited inside at the tables for the magical sandwiches to appear. It was my first Bah Mi and I will forever be searching to relive its gloriousness.
Lantern Town Restaurant – It was getting dark and we were searching for some place to stop with outdoor seating when we found the Lantern Town court yard. It was nice to step away from the busy street and relax and enjoy some great drinks. We both skipped the alcoholic options, luckily Vietnam is a great place for yummy drinks sans-alcohol. Food was good and portions way too large. Most diners were tourists but it did not feel as touristy as many of the other places.
Note to our readers:
If you are interested many of the photographs are captioned, just select the individual images to open them in a new window. Also, we were surprised how large the country was for a small country. I have put together a Travel Map with the places we visited to give an idea of how we managed to cover a good portion of the country during our trip.