Rice bellies

Lang Co Beach

We had a stopover at this beach and watched the locals catch clams with rakes and build an oyster farm with old tires.

Hoi An- “Buy Something”

If Hoi An had a motto, it would be “Buy Something.” “Come My Shop” would run a close second. “Where You From?” would be the town byline, but merely as a means to lead back to motto #1. Here, everyone’s a tout and the town easily puts all other Vietnamese cities to shame. Clothes, shoes, water puppets- everything’s up for sale. We never inquired about a “Serta genuine” Hoi An baby, but I have no doubts that if we had, Ben and I would be bringing the newest Chiu-Maes back to New York…at a pretty penny. Flatterers of the greatest persuasion at first, vendors quickly turned sour and pouty when we expressed disinterest in making a purchase. The truth was, by this junction of our trip, we were more than a little wary of getting fleeced by swindlers left and right. The Great Scam List was already a kilometer long and we were barely a third of our way done with our journey. While the offenders were primarily those connected to the tourism industry-tour operators, vendors, xe oms and cabbies- one unfortunate episode at a local coffee joint made us lose faith in the country as a whole. (Melodramatic? Yes, but enough was enough.) As we had done at every city, we quickly adopted a local coffee joint as our go-to caffeine fixer upper, frequenting the spot once or twice a day, everyday. No menus, only stools- this was one of our favorite rituals. Upon the third visit to “our” coffee joint in Hoi An, a worker- perky & cute as a button- quoted us double what we had paid each of the other times. We were incensed that she would cheat us out of one of the few pure, untainted experiences we had. We refused to pay her exaggerated quote and when another employee stepped in, she relented. Picturesque as Hoi An was, Ben and I were ready to move on.

Hoi An’s 2 saving graces:

1. We took a cooking class that was quite entertaining. Beyond how to make fresh rice paper and claypot eggplant, our instructor, a beanpole of a man with a dry wit about him, provided one bit of great illumination. Apparently, ”yum” translates to ”horny” in Vietnamese. Yum indeed.

2. The food was quite delicious. Hoi An is known for cau lau, a noodle supposedly made only from the Bai Le well in Hoi An. Whether that was hocus pocus or not, the dish itself was only okay. Tastier eats included:

  • Mi Quang- A noodle dish from the Quang Nam province. We had the mi ca loc, noodles in a turmeric broth with a spiced fish and mi luon, fried eel noodles.
  • Bup Chuoi Tron- A salad with sliced banana flower, onion, mint, pork, shrimp and roasted peanuts. We ate this at a riverside shack and washed it down with a couple of beers.
  • Banh Trang Nuong- A crispy rice cracker eaten with most everything.
  • Banh Mi- We had foregone all the versions up north, in anticipation for the famed sandwiches of the south. A stand by the main market made the wait well-deserved. A novel and delicious topping that we never saw in the States- shredded, dried calamari.

Hue: Chasing Emperor Nguyen

There’s something very convincing about the comfort of an A/C lobby and the seemingly helpful hotel receptionist who has carefully mapped out transportation options for you.  So convincing in fact that you begin to believe phrases like “tourist sleeper bus,” “very safe,” and  ”very comfortable.”  And despite all that recent experience has shown you turn down the comforts of the rather expensive train ticket and opt for the “luxury” sleeper bus—new country, new bus you tell yourself.  But nothing could be further from the truth because the second you pile into the shabby shuttle overflowing with backpackers headed for the sleeper bus you know you’ve been hoodwinked.  
The infamous “open bus tour” is one of the cheapest ways to travel in Vietnam—stopping in every tourist destination on the map it is also one of the easiest options.  But with the cheap price and convenience comes a a certain level of discomfort—especially for anyone over 5 ft 4 inches (I use Tina as my reference).  Having mastered the sleeper bus in China I thought I was prepared for the Vietnamese version but what I wasn’t ready for was the leg well—or better yet, leg trap.  Resembling the front of a bobsled, the leg well is great for storing small bags and small legs on short bodies but when applied to anyone over 5-4 the leg well is more of a torture device.  Once inside, one’s feet has no room to move about without contorting the toes, stretching out straight will land your head on the bar behind you (well above the pillow) and bending the legs is not an option unless you don’t mind black and blue shins.  And worst of all—this “luxury tourist bus” ticket was sold to us at about twice the rate had we purchased it directly.  This, I promised Tina, would be the LAST sleeper bus of the journey.  With a long restless night ahead of us we were in route to Hue to learn more about ancient Vietnamese dynastic history and taste the royal cuisine that the city is still famous for.
The historical sites in Hue are broken up into two main areas, the Citadel that lies on the northern banks of the Perfume River and the tombs and pagodas that scatter the countryside southwest of the city.  The main event is the Citadel and the palace complex at the center of the Citadel.  While much of the greater complex is inhabited by locals and filled with merchants the palace itself has been carefully reconstructed and is only accessible with purchase of a ticket.  For its architecture alone the palace is worth a visit but even more so during the biennial Hue festival which coincidentally occurred during our visit.  The festival combines the best of the reconstructed palace with historic reenactments, fashion shows, food and beer festivals, musical performances and period costumes.  At night the palace came alive with extravagant dinner banquets, fireworks, and performances.  People spilled through the gates to stroll the courtyards and walkways, getting a glimpse of life during the successive Nguyen dynasties.  And if you weren’t in Hue for the week long festival—you could catch it all on the nationwide television broadcast.
Eager to check out the countryside and take in the tombs and pagodas, Tina and I set off by moto on day two.  While the tomb we visited was interesting it left a lot to the imagination—we much preferred the Thien Mu Pagoda—so much so that we mistook it for Turtle Tower, the namesake of our favorite Pho place back in SF (as it turns out we had already seen Turtle Tower in Hanoi at the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake—it’s no wonder that we loved the food there so much).  Aside from the case of mistaken identity the beauty of Thien Mu Pagoda rivals that of any structure we’ve seen on this trip.  Rising above the northern banks of Perfume River a few kilometers west of the Citadel the tower and grounds inspire a sense of spirituality in even the most indifferent of followers.  Even Tina’s Chinese pride momentarily subsided and she confessed her admiration for the Pagoda.
Dynastic degustation style meals can be a bank breaking experience especially during the festival so Tina and I instead opted for a few local specialties.  Our favorite was the Banh Ram, a shrimp filled rice skin cake topped with crispy pork skin—Vietnamese surf and turf at its best.  We also enjoyed the Bun Bo Hue—the signature beef noodle soup of the city sold everywhere!  And as recent converts to Vietnamese coffee culture we found a local joint to get our fix—the coffee was served DIY style—coffee, sugar and ice all on the side, a far cry from our shaken concoction in Hanoi but we were style humbled by its addictive potency—we visited three times in two days.