Got back from Hoi An yesterday – pretty much exhausted. I met Mary Ellen and Tony at the airport at about 5:45pm on Tuesday. They went straight from their trip the Mekong Delta to the airport, so we ended up having a couple of hours to kill before our 8:00pm flight. You can see how we chose to kill those hours from the above photo. Here are two more of Mary Ellen and Tony “priming the pump” at Tan Son Nhut airport:
They said their trip to the Mekong Delta was very interesting and they enjoyed it. They ended up having a private car that drove them around (as opposed to being on a minibus like I was when I did roughly the same trip back in 2001), and their guide spoke good English. Their only complaints were that the hotel in Can Tho was not as great as advertised and a couple of the stops they made – such as a “zoo” that featured such exotic animals as a dog in a cage and two squirrels in a cage – were lame and/or cheesy. But they enjoyed seeing rural Vietnam and especially their morning boat trip to the Cai Reng floating market in Can Tho.
I will try to download some photos Mary Ellen took – both from their trip to the Mekong Delta and our trip to Hoi An – when they roll back through Saigon on their way back to the U.S. tomorrow. Mary Ellen is the one who had her camera when we were out in Hoi An, and she has some pretty funny photos and videos (!) from Hoi An.
Anyway, we got to Danang Tuesday night at about 9:15, met our hotel shuttle at the airport, and rode the approximately 30km to Hoi An. Our hotel, the Lotus Hotel, was really nice. Here’s the view of the pool (which I made the mistake of jumping in and which was cold as hell) from our balcony:
Here’s the lotus pond and gazebo in the central courtyard:
Our hotel was about a mile walk to downtown Hoi An, and Hoi An shuts down kind of early anyway, so we just ate dinner and hung out at the restaurant right next door to our hotel, Restaurant 328. The staff was nice and I got to practice my Vietnamese a lot. Mary Ellen and Tony kept laughing at me for our whole trip because I kept having the same exact conversation over and over again:
Me: [something random in Vietnamese]
Vietnamese: Oh, you speak Vietnamese?
Me: A little bit.
Vietnamese: How long you live in Vietnam?
Me: 4 months already.
Vietnamese: You work in what city?
Me. Ho Chi Minh City. Work and study Vietnamese.
Vietnamese: How long you study Vietnamese?
Me: 4 months already.
Vietnamese: Only 4 months!?! You speak very well!?!
Me: No, no. Only a little bit. Vietnamese is very hard.
Vietnamese: English is very hard! And these are your friends?
Me: Yes, they are my friends from America. They are here on vacation for one week.
Vietnamese: [something outside of my comprehension]
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t understand.
Vietnamese: [repeating whatever it was they said]
Me: I’m sorry. I only understand a little Vietnamese.
Mary Ellen and Tony: [laughing at me]
Tony: Hell, I think I could have that conversation in Vietnamese I’ve heard it so many times!
But seriously – despite the somewhat limited nature of my conversations – it was a good opportunity to practice my Vietnamese.
Anyway, we ate a big dinner at Restaurant 328 that included a whole squid, some corn and crab soup, sauteed vegetables, and some other stuff I can’t remember – oh, and quite a few large Tiger beers, which is probably why I can’t remember what else we had to eat. Maybe Mary Ellen has a photo of our dinner on her camera.
Mary Ellen and Tony were pretty beat by the time we finished dinner, so we all just went to bed. Well, we at least went to our respective rooms. Our hotel had in-room wi-fi, so I geeked out with my iPhone for about an hour before I went to sleep.
We got up relatively early the next morning and walked into downtown Hoi An – which turned out to be a pretty good walk. Once we got there, we just kind of walked around checking out the town. Hoi An is very different from most other cities in Vietnam. It has preserved a lot of its original architecture, and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 to ensure that it remains preserved. It definitely feels like a much older city than anywhere else I’ve been in Vietnam. I had a really good time in Hoi An back in 2001, but walking around this time, I had a hard time getting my bearings. Hoi An has a bunch of small, narrow streets, and I guess I’d just forgotten my way around.
We were there at an interesting time. As most of you who’ve been reading this blog are aware, central Vietnam was hit by a big typhoon a couple of weeks ago – I think they got nearly 40 inches of rain in one day – and they had some pretty massive flooding. I think around 35 people died in the flooding. We almost called off our trip, but we didn’t because we couldn’t get our money back for our tickets. I’m glad we ended up going.
Most of the town was perfectly fine, but they were still cleaning up the areas near the river:
This photo will give you an idea how high the water was. If you look about three-fourths of the way up the brown doors, you can see the water line from the flood:
So it was pretty bad.
Anyway, we were a little sketched out about eating breakfast at a restaurant whose kitchen had been flooded the week before, so we found a restaurant whose kitchen was located upstairs and had a nice breakfast.
After breakfast, we continued to explore Hoi An, then got down to the real business of the trip: shopping. Hoi An is known for its tailors and handicrafts, and Mary Ellen and Tony ended up having a bunch of clothes made at a tailor. Mary Ellen got a wool jacket, a cotton shirt, and three pairs of silk pajamas, and Tony got two nice shirts made – all for $130.
We then walked back to our hotel, where we’d arranged to rent motorbikes for our ride up to the China Beach area near Danang. We rented three motorbikes – one manual transmission which I rode and two automatic transmissions that Mary Ellen and Tony rode. They were a little apprehensive about riding them because it had been a long time since either of them had ridden a motorbike, but they ended up doing fine.
We rode the 25 or so kilometers to China Beach south of Danang. Unfortunately, China Beach wasn’t very impressive. The typhoon had stirred up the water so much that it was just brown and dirty looking, and had also washed up tons of trash, driftwood, etc., onto the beach. The weather that day was also gray and overcast – even drizzling a little bit from time to time – so it just wasn’t a good day for the beach. The only impressive thing about China Beach that day was the surf – there were some huge waves and it looked very dangerous. We walked around on the beach for a few minutes and took some photos, then had lunch at a little restaurant-slash-shack on the beach. The place didn’t look too sanitary, so we ordered everything fried: fried squid, fried shrimp (that, strangely, tasted exactly like pork rinds), french fries, etc.
After lunch, we drove across the highway to the “Marble Mountain” area. Marble Mountain is basically a tourist trap – they used to mine marble from the mountain to make marble sculptures, etc., but they figured out that if they kept it up, the mountain was going to disappear, so they started importing the marble from China. Some of the sculptures – huge Buddhas, etc. – were pretty impressive, and the pagoda and Buddhas on top of the mountain were kind of neat, but overall the area around the mountain was full of a bunch of overpriced shops selling marble sculptures. I remember trying to buy a small bust of Ho Chi Minh at Marble Mountain back in 2001 and having a bad experience with the people trying to overcharge me so much that I just walked away.
Unfortunately we had the same experience there the other day. A woman who had showed us the way to China Beach had asked us to come to her “family’s” marble shop with her after we had lunch on the beach and looked at the pagoda, etc., on the top of the mountain. So after that, we went to her shop and she proceeded to completely rip us off. I again asked about a small bust of Ho Chi Minh, and they showed me some that didn’t look anything like him, so I declined those. Then she said she had something better with Ho Chi Minh on it and showed me this little plate about 5 inches around with a printed photos of Ho on it. I didn’t want it anyway, but asked how much it was just to be polite and she said $30 USD. I’ve lived here long enough to know that they would have been making money if I’d paid $3 USD for that plate, so I quickly realized how it was going to be and started making my exit. When I said I didn’t want it, she started up with the “how much do you want to pay for it?”, etc., and I said I didn’t want it period. Then, as usual, she resorted to outright begging, saying that she helped us find the beach and we should help her family out, etc. I saw her point, and did appreciate her showing us the way to the beach, etc., but any grateful feelings I had toward her pretty much evaporated when she tried to sell me a $3 plate for $30.
Once she realized I wasn’t going to budge, she shifted her attention to Tony. They were trying to sell Tony two small, matching Buddha statues for $30 USD each, which quickly moved to $20 USD for both, which then shifted to “how much do you want to pay for them?”, and then to the outright begging. We finally got out of there, but I just hate experiences like that. You know when someone is helping you out – showing you directions, etc. – that they’re probably going to ask you for something in return, but you kind of hope not – and then when they not only try to take advantage of you by overcharging you outrageously, but also do the whole begging thing, you just leave with a really bad feeling about the whole situation. Which we did. But oh well.
Anyway, right before all of that happened, we did go up on Marble Mountain and here are some photos we took:
Mary Ellen and Tony in front of same:
Old building inside of cave on top of mountain:
Buddha in cave:
Same Buddha from different angle:
Pagoda on top of mountain:
Mary Ellen and Vietnamese girl on top of mountain. She was with her boyfriend, and he basically just grabbed Mary Ellen and moved her next to his girlfriend and started taking pictures. They were from a small town near Danang and probably hadn’t seen too many white people in their lives. (That’s my finger over part of the lens of my iPhone’s camera – haven’t quite gotten that down yet.):
The area right around Marble Mountain had been flooded very badly too. Here are a couple of photos of some flooded houses we saw:
So after we came down Marble Mountain and had the bad experience in the marble shop, we rode our motorbikes back to Hoi An. We had a few big Tiger beers at Restaurant 328 next to our hotel, then took showers and changed clothes and took a cab back into Hoi An. We ate at an italian restaurant that actually had very good greek salads, pizzas, pasta, etc., and we drank way too much beer and wine. Mary Ellen has some funny photos and videos of that night on her camera – including a video of Mary Ellen and I having a conversation in “Vietnamese” which, now that I think about it, may be too stupid to post here so this might just be a tease.
Anyway, after dinner we walked around shopping for a little while, but most everything was closed or closing up. We caught a cab back to our hotel and shot pool in the lobby for a while and drank a few more beers that we definitely didn’t need. I don’t think it was too late when we went to bed – maybe 12:00 or 12:30, but we’d definitely had plenty by then and we were due to crash.
Thursday morning – which was Thanksgiving – I woke up with a pounding headache and felt like I had not slept at all the night before. Tony said he felt fine, but Mary Ellen said she felt awful too. We went and had breakfast, then picked up Mary Ellen and Tony’s tailored clothes, all of which fit fine, looked good, etc., then Mary Ellen did some more shopping before we headed back to our hotel to check out and catch our shuttle to the airport.
My “Thanksgiving dinner” – if you want to call it that – consisted of a can of Pringles potato chips and nearly an entire bag of peanut M&Ms. Tony had a can of Pringles also, and Mary Ellen had some Pringles and some “coconut biscuits.” So it was pretty deluxe. And healthy.
I slept for nearly the entire one-hour flight from Danang back to HCMC, then walked Mary Ellen and Tony from the domestic terminal over to the international terminal so they could catch their flight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. I, in turn, caught a cab back to my guesthouse, where I promptly crashed. Hard.
Anyway, last night I got an SMS message from Mary Ellen that they had made it to Siem Reap safely and were checked into their hotel. She SMS’d me a couple of times today and said their guide was great, the hotel was very nice, and the temples were, in her words, “breathtaking.” So I think they’re having a good time.
And I think they’ve had a pretty good time for their whole trip. They’ve certainly crammed a lot into 7 days, and will likely be exhausted when they get back to the U.S., but I think it has at least been interesting for them. I know I’ve had a fun time with the time we’ve spent together. I didn’t know Tony before, but he’s a really nice, fun guy, and both he and Mary Ellen are very laid back travelers who are happy to just kind of go with the flow – which is pretty much the required attitude if you want to have a good time over here.
It’s been fun showing someone around Vietnam and I’ll be sad to see them go tomorrow night. I hope that some of the rest of you will suck it up and come visit me over here! Soon!