Another Birthday and Finally Exploring Hoi An

19 01 2011

The last two days in Hoi An weren’t hugely eventful. The biggest trauma was getting my laundry back at the hotel and discovering that nearly all my boxers shorts were missing and lots of expensive hiking socks. Despite asking my hotel repeatedly to sort it out I knew that I would never see them again. Lack of clean underwear is normally my indication of needing to wash some clothes;  I was going to need to buy some new ones somewhere.

I didn’t really do a lot during the day but Michele decided to head off to the My Son ruins on another scooter and check them out. She was supposed to meet us at my hotel at 5pm and (unlike Audrey!) was normally on time but she turned up more than half an hour late brandishing a water bottle full of petrol. There was clearly a story here. On the way back from the ruins her bike cut out and it turned out that the fuel lines were blocked – Michele had to rush off to a mechanic and then ride back in the dark (since a lot of Vietnamese think that lights are optional at night time, this was quite a stressful trip). Michele tried to get her money back for the rental but that was never going to happen; the woman even tried to tell her that she was responsible for half the repair costs. When it was clear that she wasn’t going to get any money back, Michele demanded the money for the petrol and when this wasn’t forthcoming she convinced them to siphon the petrol out of the tank. This they did agree to.

Japanese covered bridge, Hue

We ended up in Treat’s as usual to play pool but Audrey went to bed extremely early, so Michele and I decided to head off for an Indian before meeting up with Jean for her birthday celebrations. Jean was the very first person I met on the Southeast Asian leg of my trip and we were supposed to have celebrated her birthday the previous day; unfortunately she’d been ill and called it off. The curry was pretty tasty – my first for quite a while – but it was probably all the questions about the incongruous bottle of petrol that provided the most fun during the meal. That and Michele’s continued attempts to give it away to anyone who might be renting a bike in the future.

Eventually we left, bottle of petrol in tow, and found Jean in Laugh bar. Here I met Idiet (Dutch), Kate (US), Vic (US – although you’d never guess it from his warped accent), Chris (Canadian), Ellen (Dutch) and Dante (Swedish). I ran into nearly all of them again by chance in different places later on on my trip except for Jean and Dante. We were the only customers in Laugh so after drinking a few bia hoi (fresh beer) we decided to head somewhere more lively and found ourselves in the Before And Now bar. I’d wanted to go to Treat’s (just for a change) because it was a lot cheaper but it was hard convincing such a large group of the merits of walking 30 metres down the street. Especially when the music was loud and it sounded so lively.

Chris and Jean in Before and Now

We had a great time in the bar; the source of a lot of the entertainment was Jean’s big sandwich board around her neck saying “Happy Birthday” with a check-list of various dares that she had to perform. These included kissing a stranger, having a shot with a bartender, singing her national anthem with a mouth full of crackers and drinking a “birthday cake” shot (some concoction that only Kate seemed to know the recipe for and whose ingredients weren’t available in Hoi An). When this bar shut though I really couldn’t face moving on to another bar (it was already 2am and I was still exhausted by my late night the previous night) so I said my goodbyes to the group and headed home to bed. I expected to see everyone the next night or, failing that, in Hanoi. As it turned out neither happened.

Me with some Chinese dragons

For our last full day in Hoi An we decided to visit some of the many Chinese buildings that the city is famed for. The other thing the city is famed for is tailor-made clothes but I decided I didn’t really have the room in my rucksack for more clothing – unless they’d made boxer shorts! Although the buildings were interesting to begin with, and some of the details were extremely intricate, after a while it all became a bit same-y. We finished our little tour in the mid-afternoon (after an appallingly bad museum) and then arranged to meet later in our usual stomping ground Treat’s. Audrey met up with a Dutch couple that she’d met earlier on her travels whilst Michele and I played pool with various Brits including Katy and Tom; Eric and Kayleigh. I also met up with Maud (French) who Michele knew previously. At around 11pm I decided to call it a night; two hard day’s drinking and very little sleep were taking their toll but what shocked me the most was actually leaving Audrey behind in the bar – she’d always gone home to bed before 9pm when she was out with me. Now all of sudden she was out later: I tried not to take it personally.


Some of the fretwork in one of the temples

You ‘Ave Sexy Bull

18 01 2011

It was one of those great days backpacking when you do something completely unplanned and it turns out to be one of the best adventures of the trip. We (Audrey, Michele, Dan and myself) met at Re-Treats for breakfast. This proved to be our regular breakfast joint for most of my time in Hoi An. Dan was leaving that day but hopefully I’d meet up with him again in the cold North. Michele suggested that the rest of us rent some motorbikes and head on over to Marble Mountain. “Marble Mountain?” Audrey and I exclaimed. “What the hell is that?” (Sometimes I really should do some research on the places that I’m visiting).

Marble Mountain, it transpires, is a mountain absolutely honeycombed with Buddhist shrines, pagodas and caves. It sounded interesting based on the Lonely Planet description so Audrey and I decided to do it (in any case we had nothing else planned). It was my first time ever riding a motorbike; at least it was an automatic so I didn’t have to think too much – and it proved to be a lot of fun motoring along down the smooth, relatively empty roads. It was quite a low cc and, for some reason, even though Audrey and Michele were on one bike; I sometimes struggled to keep up with them at full throttle.


Pagoda on Marble Mountain

We saw the mountain from the main road and it looked very impressive – already we could see a huge pagoda jutting out of the hill. A woman let us park our bikes near her shop – we offered her some parking money but she told us just to visit her shop when we were done with the mountain. I had very little intention of buying any souvenirs but I know that Audrey is always a sucker for such things and feels obligated to buy something so I figured that she’d do all right out of it. I would rather just have given some money.


One of the many Buddhas in the caves of marble mountain

I lost count of how many Buddhas hidden away in caves and ornate pagodas we actually saw but the other fun thing about the mountain was just setting off on some random uphill path and then clambering down through some rocks until you ended up in the back of yet another cave with a Buddhist shrine. We did a lot of walking that day and there were a few times I wished I was wearing better footwear than flip-flops. From the top of the mountain we often got some great views of the nearby China Beach – although most of it seems to be a building site at the moment; resorts are being built everywhere. I remember once looking down through a gap in the rocks and seeing a cavern shrine far, far below us bathed in candlelight: it was magical.

Possibly the most bizarre Buddha of the day was one of the last. He had lots of tiny Buddhist helpers clambering all over him – one was possibly pulling the fluff out of his belly button whilst another tweaked his nipple. If anyone knows what the religious significance of this is, I would love to know!


Bizarre Buddha

We ended up coming off the mountain quite a long way from where we’d parked: I’m not quite sure how and no other tourists seemed to have gone this way. This was a shame because the pagoda there was quite impressive and very different from the others; it was clad in pebbles and had lots of strange fighting scenes: again, I’m not quite sure what they meant.


Last pagoda

We reclaimed our bikes (as expected Audrey did purchase something from the woman’s shop) and headed off back to town. Rather than go straight into town we decided to head down to the beach again where we got ourselves a very late lunch. I can’t even remember what the hell we were talking about but at one point Audrey made a comment (probably facetiously) “Ah, but Barry, you ‘ave sexy bull”. Michele and I looked at her blankly. “What? That’s a word in English, non?” “Sexy bull?” Sexable?” More blank looks. Finally we realised that she was trying to say “Sex appeal” but by this point the die was cast. From then on in – as well as being Audrey’s furry friend – I was now also a sexy bull. I even did little bull impressions in the sand to live up on to my new moniker.


Fisherman boats on the beach

We dropped our bikes off back in town and then went to play pool in Treat’s. This was 3-person killer pool: we each picked 5 balls (1-5, 6-10 and 11-15) and you then had to knock the other people’s balls off the table – this involved a lot of ganging up on other players: mostly (it seemed) the two girls against me. Audrey, as is her wont, went home early but Michele and I stayed behind and played lots more games of pool against other people: eventually an extremely drunk Australian couple, Ellen and Rory. The bar shut early at around midnight and I was ready for my bed, but the others convinced me that we should carry on. We ended up on the other side of the river in a really grimy dive bar called Sun. I got hustled for a pool game by one of the local guys – it cost me the cash for two beers – and Rory spent most of the evening drunkenly trying to find vacant spaces on the wall to scrawl some more graffiti. Finally around 3am, even this place shut and it was time to call it a night.


One Day My Son All This Will Be Ruins

17 01 2011

I’d booked the trip to Mỹ Sơn with Audrey but because we were at different hotels our pick ups were from different places. I kept expecting us to pick her up but before I knew it we’d left Hoi An behind and Audrey was nowhere to be seen. I was stuck right at the back of the bus behind lots of people sitting on jump seats and I couldn’t easily ask the driver where she was. Either the bus had not picked her up, she’d overslept, or there was a second bus: in any case there was nothing I could do about it now. An English guy, Dan, had been dropped at the same intermediate pickup point as me and we spent most of the journey to the ruins trading travel stories. When we got to the ruins Audrey appeared from another bus and was shocked that I hadn’t even asked the driver about her whereabouts – she’d known there were two buses  and apparently I didn’t even look around for her when I got off. “I was worried about you,” I said. “Ask Dan.” I had mentioned to him once that my friend was supposed to be on the same bus…

What can I say about the ruins without sounding like a jaded traveller that has seen too many ruins? Probably not a lot – I’m a jaded traveller that has seen too many ruins. They are one of the few surviving Cham buildings – most of their structures were made of wood. And what is there has been badly destroyed by wars – like most places in Vietnam they made a big point of showing us the B52 bomb craters from the Vietnam war. To me it always looks like a big dent in the ground. There were also way too many tourists there – the buses all arrive at the same time – so that never helps my perception of a place either.


My Son ruins

After the ruins, Audrey went back to her hotel to relax and Dan and I went to Secret Garden, a really cute restaurant hidden away from the main road. They do gourmet Vietnamese food: it was delicious. In the evening we arranged to meet in Treat’s bar for happy hour. We spent most of the evening playing pool and at one point we were joined by Michele from New Zealand. It was probably a good thing that we met her – I now had 3 days to kill in Hoi An whilst I waited for my Vietnamese visa to be extended – and since Audrey doesn’t like to drink much and kept going to bed early I needed someone with similar drinking habits. It also meant at least sux to tin hours of entertainment each day taking the puss out of her accent.



Pool Party

16 01 2011

It was Audrey’s birthday on the 16th – we decided to celebrate it by having lots of big pool tournaments. Our first problem was finding a bar with a pool table – we hadn’t seen any up until now. I asked in my hotel and he gave me a few suggestions but we couldn’t find the first bar so we landed up in the more expensive Before and Now. The table here was quite dire and there was no black ball so we used a second white instead. The white that we were using as a cue ball would probably have served just as well in a round of golf – it had so many dimples in it – and it often tottered around in weird and wonderful directions. Not that either of us are particularly good at pool anyway.

We went to Good Morning Vietnam for lunch – it’s a big chain of Italian restaurants dotted throughout Nam. It was relatively posh I guess – there were napkins with accompanying rings on the table; Audrey and I modelled these as bow ties; this, and our continual sniping at each other (in a well-intentioned humorous way), had the middle-aged Australian couple on the table next to us laughing out loud. “Are you guys together?” they asked. “God no!” we replied simultaneously with a synchronised look as if we were drinking curdled milk.


Audrey on her birthday

After lunch we found another bar with a pool table. We must have stayed there for four hours playing round after round of pool. I think that we were the only customers the whole time. I suppose, since it was her birthday, I should actually have let Audrey win but since I suck at pool anyway I’ll do anything to gain some pride so I didn’t let the birthday girl off. Audrey ordered a cocktail which she didn’t really like (I didn’t hear the end of it!) and then it was dinner in Re-Treats cafe. It was only 9pm when we finished eating but Audrey decided enough was enough (her alcohol tolerance is not very high) and headed home to bed. I decided to check out the sister bar, Treat’s, which Lonely Planet had mentioned as the place for backpackers to meet up. There was a big football match on so most of the guys were watching that; having zero interest in club football it didn’t exactly lend itself to me being sociable with the other travellers. Ironically there were two pool tables here – I’m not sure why my hotel hadn’t recommended it. After just one drink there I headed home to bed; I had to be up relatively early the next day anyway for our trip to the Mỹ Sơn ruins.

Walking in the Rain

15 01 2011

I’m so used to travelling in warm climes that I sometimes forget what cold weather can be like. Whilst being drenched in a heavy downpour walking up a volcano on Isla de Ometepe can put a dampener on your mood, it is hot in the jungle so it didn’t matter too much. Northern Vietnam in January, as I was about to discover, is quite cold and Hoi An was my first introduction to that. It also tended to rain a bit – and cold rain is not fun.

My journey to Hoi An hadn’t been easy. I’d left Dalat early in the morning and arrived in Nha Trang at lunchtime. I actually ran into Audrey as I was walking up the street towards her hotel; she was heading off to the post office to send some stuff home and lighten the load of her backpack. I dropped my pack off at the hotel and then we went to the sub-post office. The woman quoted her a price that was more than what she’d been offered the day before and when she took out a kilo’s weight the price seemed to go down by more than we expected. It seemed like quite an erratic pricing structure. With that errand done we set off to the bus company to purchase my ticket for the sleeper bus to Hoi An that evening – there were no more tickets available. “Do any of the other companies have buses tonight?” we asked. “No. Everyone is full,” she replied. My plan to travel on the same bus as Audrey was in tatters; my plan to go straight to Hoi An without spending any more time in Nha Trang was looking extremely unlikely. Undeterred, we went to another agency and I managed to get the last available ticket on the bus. The time was similar to Audrey’s so we should arrive in Hoi An around the same time.

After lunch (I had a desire for some Western food and tucked into a pizza) I chilled out on the roof terrace of the Ha Van hotel for the afternoon. Audrey on the other hand got into a panic about her parcel. She hadn’t signed a declaration form to show what was in it. Eventually she recruited the hotel owner to her cause and returned to the post office. The woman told her she didn’t need a declaration form but Audrey was convinced she did so she got the package and her money back and went to the main post office. Not only did she get a declaration form this time around but the price was a lot cheaper.

We got picked up separately so we arranged to meet at Audrey’s hotel the next day (I was going to stay elsewhere – I thought hers sounded too expensive) at midday. My bed on the nightbus was right at the back; the middle of 5 beds – I had to clamber across one of the beds either side just to get to mine. On the one side I had a Vietnamese family of 4 sharing 2 beds; on the other a Kiwi couple. The Kiwi guy was impossibly tall but at least, unlike me, he could stick his feet off the end of his bed – mine was truncated more than the others for some reason and I couldn’t stretch out fully. My bent-kneed sleeping position meant that I spent most of the night being jabbed by one of the men either side me, or one of the little kids would wake me up by moving their hand on my leg. Apart from the novelty of hearing the kids singing Frère Jacques and familiar nursery rhymes in Vietnamese, it was not a pleasant journey and I slept very poorly.


Hoi An

I arrived in Hoi An at around 8am and after a few false starts eventually found a room for $15 – more than Audrey’s after all! Although I couldn’t check in for a few hours. After whiling away some time on my computer and drinking some iced coffees to try to keep myself awake, I went back and got some much-needed sleep. Too much in fact: I was late meeting Audrey.

A convoy of tourists in rainproofed cyclos

We wandered around town for a while: it was really picturesque – an impressive mix of Chinese, Japanese and Cham architecture; possibly some French and Dutch in the mix too – but was cold and it kept trying to rain. Audrey decided that we should walk to the beach – it was 5 kilometres away and, as soon as we made that decision, the rain really decided to arrive. By this point we were too far away from town for me to go back for my jacket – luckily my fleece seemed to be water resistant. The walk, along straight roads past big riverside resort hotels and the occasional paddy field, seemed to take forever. The combination of walking to an objective for which I had little desire to see, the rain and the interminable walk meant that whingeing Barry came out to play. For those who haven’t experienced the pleasure, imagine a petulant child asking “Are we nearly there yet?” or “We must have walked more than five klicks by now” on a repetitive loop. Finally we arrived at the beach and it was just as I imagined: deserted; wet; huge crashing waves. There weren’t even any bars open for me to get my promised beer from. We immediately got a taxi back to town and chilled out at our hotels for a while.

I really want to know what picking one's ears involves

In the evening we crossed the river and went to a local restaurant amidst a long line of similar eateries. The proprietress dragged us from one end of the stretch to her little row of tables; we were the only customers. The food, however, was really good and the beer was cheap so I was happy. Whilst there I got a big lecture from Audrey about using the bamboo chopsticks; apparently I was single-handedly responsible for the demise of the panda. My attempts to point out that bamboo grows really quickly and that there are no pandas in Vietnam fell on deaf ears. We were both tired after all the travelling and Audrey isn’t much of a night owl, so after walking her back to her hotel I hit the hay.