Unbelievable but true – I actually slept relatively decently on the train from Hanoi to Danang and did not need more rest. It was around 7am, and I walked to central Hoi An to explore instead.
Before I got anywhere far though, I dropped off the laundry in a small shop opposite the hotel. After one week of rubbing shoulders (and other body parts) with half of Vietnamese population, I badly needed to freshen up. The lady owner of the laundry shop ran out towards me. "You bring me good luck!" she was nearly singing. "You are my first customer this year".
Hoi An is situated on the coast of South China Sea and is home to around 120 thousand inhabitants. The city is a World Heritage site; according to UNESCO, it makes an "exceptionally well-preserved example of a traditional Asian trading port, is an outstanding material manifestation of the fusion of cultures over time in an international maritime commercial centre". Albeit somewhat overshadowed by its much larger neighbouring Danang, Hoi An attracts thousands of visitors every year.
My impression of Hoi An will forever be the "afterparty place". Everywhere were the artefacts of the New Year festivities. Paper candle holders (designed to float on the river) were stranded ashore, and scores of fast-handed locals were cleaning up the traces of multiple parties which had visibly taken place around town the previous night. I vividly remember the little mountain of broken Jägermeister bottles.
The city was awakening beautifully to the new day. The weather in Hoi An can be unpredictable in January, often bursting in abundant rain. A friend of mine got mercilessly soaked just days before I arrived. But I seemed to have been lucky. A loved up couple was cuddling on the bridge across the Thu Bon River and several English guys in hotpants were performing one of their New Year classics (no doubt) – each was celebrating the calendar change in their own way – under the perfectly rainless skies.
The Vietnamese people do not celebrate Western New Year, saving their festive mood for Lunar New Year instead. Known as Tết, the celebration falls between late January and early February and is loudly heard throughout the country. Maybe I should time my next visit to Vietnam accordingly.
Owing to the lack of traditions associated with Western New Year, the Vietnamese make up their own. Everyone seemed to have decided that ABBA's "Happy New Year" was the ultimate New Year anthem for those Western people and should be played repeatedly to please the visitors. That particular song failing, let it at least be ABBA; any song will do. I don't think I was ever exposed to more ABBA music than on that New Year's Day. The familiar voices of Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid accompanied me everywhere! Next time I'm in Vietnam, I will make sure to import some themed New Year records, just to prove that we really have more than one New Year song outside Vietnam. We really do.
The foreign-to-local ratio around Hoi An seemed higher than in my previous Vietnam destinations. The locals were therefore behaving rather differently than, say in Hanoi or Sa Pa. Cyclo pedalists and motor bikers were calling out from every corner offering their services, and souvenir sellers seemed to be jumping out of their skin advertising standardised merchandise. Add to that a bustling market; Hoi An was quite obviously a tourist hotspot.
What Hoi An really famous for though is tailor industry. Many a friend of mine have travelled there to have clothes made. I was not particularly interested, but the hype of tailor shops in Hoi An was impossible to avoid. Friendly women were crawling up to me ceaselessly, began up innocently with the usual "where are you from", continued with a staple "Happy New Year", some flattery to your "beauty" and eventually got to the point – would I have a look at their shop? I followed one and was a bit intimidated with how aggressively the ladies there began to plan my fashion for me. Imagining, with horror, my already bursting wardrobe further squeezed, I capitulated irrevocably and ran away back into the cosy, sunlit streets of Hoi An.
The city was very compact, with many attraction points within easy walking distance from one another. I got a tourist ticket granting admission to any five in 18 of Hoi An's main tourist sites. Having given the long list a critical look, I chose (1) the Japanese Bridge, (2) the Museum of Folk Culture, (3) the Museum of Trade Ceramics, (4) the Phuoc Kine Assembly Hall and (5) Handicraft Workshop for next day's music show. Please don't be surprised at the obvious domination of crafty venues – I am not an artist myself but am passionate about any arty expression through other people's talent, especially music. Way more interesting than an impersonal royal diamonds museum, say.
Among the more interesting visits was the Museum of Trade Ceramics – not only for the content, but also for the just married couple I caught having pictures taken there. I first thought the bride was alone, but then realised the casually dressed photographer was in fact the husband. Or so he told me. I guess some people just don't like having their pictures taken, even on their wedding day.
For the evening, I had planned to find a perfect sunset spot. Since the receptionist at Vinh Hung Resort clearly misunderstood my innocent inquiry ("Excuse me, what is the best sunset viewing spot around here?"), I embarked on a self-search. And I was lucky.
Next to the market, a flat platform full of people opened onto the water. Walking towards the bridge, a group of derelict houses were sticking out far into the river. I edged towards a narrow strip of land between the (heavily polluted) water and a wall of a building, climbed onto a dusty concrete block parallel to the bridge and directly faced the sunset. It was dirty beyond imagination, but the train the night before had made me immune to dirt. It was my perfect sunrise spot.
I spent about an hour bidding farewell to the sun and explaining to foreigners passing me by on excursion boats how the heck I ever got to my pedestal surrounded by steep walls and water. Perhaps I wasn't vocal enough, but most looked slightly unimpressed.
The city was falling into darkness as I made my riverside return to the hotel. Another just wed couple was floating on a boat, photographed eagerly by two designated photographers as well as numerous passers-by. All the buildings lining the riverfront were brightly lit up, reflecting vividly in the water. It was a beautiful evening – the first day of the New Year.
Day 7: Hoi An to Nha Trang
Rise and shine! I was up early the next day and lined up strategically for a perfect sunrise. Thankfully I did not need to go far, as my hotel happened to be well positioned next to the Thu Bon River facing east. The water would only be disturbed by frequently passing motorcycle ferry, carrying passengers (and their wheels) back and forth across the river.
I had a few last hours in Hoi An before transferring back to Danang train station. Other than endless wandering around, I spent the fifth and final strip of my tourist ticket to visit a traditional Vietnamese music show. That was when I finally appreciated the more sentimental side of Vietnamese psyche – and more of performing culture. It couldn't have been all marching and worshipping Ho Chi Minh, for goodness sake.
Isn't it amazing how motorcyclists harass you constantly when you don't need them – and disappear the minute you have to get to point B in a hurry? In vain I searched for a reasonably minded driver to Danang (the one in the heart of Hoi An demanded twice my inbound fare). Eventually I sought help from a lady in a local cornershop – who called her cousin who then called his friend who in turn touted his acquaintance passing by – and my lift was sorted. For 6 USD, or even less than it cost me to get to Hoi An.
The train ride to Nha Trang was originally planned to be an overnight one, but – following the cancellation of SE7 – had to be transferred to daytime. My SE3 train was a far cry from TN1. The seats were soft, the windows NOT caged, there was a cafe car and it was notably cleaner. Nobody was certainly spitting on the floor anymore. Which was a good thing, as my tolerance levels for THAT had pretty much hit the floor, too.
Eight hours flew by in a flash. We passed more rice fields and would occasionally roll past the South China Sea – yes, the sea was near! Top entertainment of the evening was provided by two toddler actors, however. Two boys – a blond German and a little Vietnamese – spotted each other from opposite sides of the train and continued drifting from exchanging toys to quarrelling and from being all smiles to breaking up again. They were soon the centre of attention of the entire train, as people came over to see a blond and a dark head mingling so closely together. A sweet sight.
We finally arrived in Nha Trang – my penultimate stopover in Vietnam. The train station was about a 30-minute walking distance from central Nha Trang, and, somewhat stiff from sitting down for hours, I decided to cover it by foot. As I was walking, I could not help noticing the change in dress – the latter seemed much more relaxed compared to the North. One of Vietnam's best known beach resorts, Nha Trang seemed pleasantly warm. Many locals around were sporting shorts and mini dresses which the more conservative (and momentarily wintery) North would not necessarily embrace with open arms.
I also noted a surprisingly high number of Russian speaking visitors. Was Vietnam their cheaper (and visa-free) version of Thailand? The Russians especially congregated along the Hung Vuong Street, owing perhaps to several glitzy discos there. Some shops displayed signs and menus in Russian. Interesting. Nha Trang was certainly a holiday destination with entertainment options.
I was close to dead by the time I had arrived in my small hotel. The original plan was to travel from Danang to Nha Trang overnight and spend two nights in one of the smaller hotels along the seafront. Since that hotel had already been fully booked by the time my itinerary changed, I found a cheaper solution in Vicky's Boutique Guesthouse – which, according to online reviews, was centrally located and a backpackers' paradise in every other way.
Unfortunately, my review of Vicky's is likely to be different. Upon arrival, I was told to wait well beyond half an hour (and past 11pm) until the owner, Miss Vicky herself, would please be so kind and arrive from elsewhere. A busy type! – never mind that I had pre-warned her about the time of my arrival. She looked at me apologetically as she explained that the hotel was unfortunately full, as her other guest decided to stay an extra night. In my room, that is. Therefore she would be taking me to another hotel. Because she certainly could not let that other guest down. She cared about her guests very much, you see. Don’t know about you, but I was not convinced.
Was there anything to argue about? It was late, and all I wanted was to let the night pass before I could move on to my fancy(-ish) waterfront location. With my two backpacks (one large and one small), I climbed onto the motorbike behind Miss Vicky. She assured me that the other hotel was just around the corner. Well, it wasn't exactly. It was more of a 25-minute walk in the direction of a far less nice part of town, away from the centre. But I really did not care anymore.
(Continued in Vietnam by rail V: Nha Trang)