Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Seeing Vietnam by Train: Hoi An

After Ho Chi Minh City, we headed to Hoi An by taking the train to the closest city, Da Nang, then getting a taxi to get to Hoi An. After more than 12 hours on the nighttime train from Ho Chi Minh City with little to eat and little sleep, we were exhausted and hungry. We walked out of the train station (where we were immediately accosted by taxi and private-car drivers) looking for a place to eat lunch. We found a tiny dive with no menu, but packed with the locals sitting on child-sized chairs at child-height tables. We sat down with every pair of eyes on us. The other patrons were curious about and amused by us, with our luggage and wide-eyed wonder. A group came and sat next to us, trying to talk with my son and passing us the utensils and napkins, which were actually papers cut into small squares. One man who ended up next to me took it upon himself to be the translator for us. It was a very relaxed and friendly environment.
The Da Nang train station.
In Vietnam, you actually have to cross the tracks sometimes in order to board the train or get into the station.
Then the food started coming and kept on coming -- rice, chicken, pork, shrimp, vegetables, and vegetable soup. It was the best meal we had had in Vietnam at that point. Even though the dishes were simple, everything was cooked to perfection. The meat was tender and infused with flavor. We ate and ate and ate. Even my son, who usually eats little even when hungry, wolfed down multiple helpings of chicken and vegetables with his rice.

Of course, after our experiences in Ho Chi Minh City, I couldn't help but wonder in the back of my mind how much this was going to cost us, knowing that we are obviously not local and didn't know the language, and there was no menu or set price. So, just to get an idea, we asked the guy next to us how much he thought we would pay for the food we ate, since he seemed to be very familiar with the people and the food there, and he told us maybe $4 (or about 80,000 dong).

Sure enough, when it came time to pay, the woman who served us gave us a price that was almost twice that amount. My husband initially thought she asked for 50,000 dong, and started giving that to her. She got upset, thinking that he was trying to haggle with her, and showed him a 50,000 dong bill and a 100,000 dong bill. When he asked again to clarify (because she didn't speak English and we don't speak Vietnamese) and try to see if she would take 100,000 dong, she got angry and walked away, refusing to take any of his money! She and another woman started talking and shouting at each other, pointing at my husband. I wanted to call her bluff and walk away without paying, but my husband felt that it would be wrong to do that (of course, I agree we should pay for our meal, but hey, it would be her own doing if I decided to call her bluff and she ended up losing money). We ended up paying what she wanted just so we could move on. It was still an inexpensive meal given how much food we got, but I hate being taken advantage of just because I'm not one of the locals.

After lunch, we still had the task of getting ourselves to Hoi An. Prior to the trip, I had learned that we could either hire a car, take a taxi, or take a bus. The bus was the cheapest option, but the bus station was fairly far away from the train station, we didn't know where it would drop us off in Hoi An, and I had read that some bus drivers will try to make foreigners pay a lot more to take the bus. The taxi and private-car drivers usually charged 400,000 or 500,000 dong for a ride to Hoi An, but the advice was to negotiate and not pay more than 200,000 dong. Luckily, the minute we left the restaurant and headed back to the train station, a private-car driver came up to us, offering to drive us to Hoi An for 230,000 dong. I countered with 200,000 dong and we had a deal. When I was doing some reading online about the ride from Da Nang to Hoi An, it had sounded like a rather lengthy ride at one or two hours. But we got to our hotel in half an hour! 200,000 dong for half an hour was a good deal for the driver.

Our hotel was beautiful and comfortable. But there was one thing that we didn't like or understand, and we never found out what it was about: Every morning, at around 5:30, we would hear talking and singing over a loudspeaker outside the grounds of the hotel. One morning, it was mostly talking with a little bit of music, while the next morning, it was equal parts talking and singing. This would go on for at least two hours and wake us up at an ungodly hour. We thought perhaps it was propaganda being broadcast to the masses, but we couldn't be sure and forgot to ask the hotel staff about it.
While driving over a bridge, we saw a bridge parallel to us that looked like a dragon. We would drive on the dragon bridge on our way back to the train station to go to Hue.
A beach in Da Nang.
Our hotel in Hoi An.
The hotel restaurant.
Our "welcome drink" of orange, apple, and mint was so delicious!
Instead of a gingerbread house, the restaurant had a cracker house.
The cracker house even had miniature furniture inside!
Our room on the left at the top of the stairs.
I loved our room with its rich, dark wood floors and furniture.
Letting in some of that afternoon sunlight and fresh air.
Our bathroom with a step-down shower and windows that opened out.
View to the left from our balcony.
View to the right from our balcony.
View straight ahead.
Badminton court at our hotel. My son loved the game.
Christmas tree reflected in the pool
The part of Hoi An that we spent our time in was a picturesque, quaint, and touristy little area of town that didn't allow cars and was lined with shops, restaurants, and a market along the river. It is a World Heritage Site and draws visitors from all over the world. While we were there, we noticed many Russian tourists. We also noticed that, the further north we went, the friendlier the people seemed to become. While walking along the streets of Hoi An, browsing through the shops, most vendors would just greet us and invite us to go into their shops, but didn't bother us too much. The only people who harassed us were the boat tour guides. We were approached for a boat tour every few steps we took. I was so annoyed that I just started repeating "No boat!" while walking down the street! That did not make an ounce of difference, of course, and we continued to be followed and harassed by all the boat tour people. 

Hoi An is known for its fabrics and textiles, and its streets are lined with tailor shops that make custom-made clothes and dresses. The tailor shops were filled with beautiful fabrics and different styles of clothes. I had really wanted to have some things made -- maybe a shirt and dress -- while in Hoi An, but because of the limited time we were there, I didn't have enough time to make decisions on what I wanted and I didn't want to make any hasty decisions.
The streets of Hoi An on our first night there.
I loved this building, which was home to a restaurant.
Strolling and taking in the sights at dusk.
Where we ate our first dinner in Hoi An. I had pho, which felt so nice on that chilly night; my husband had a noodle dish special to Hoi An; and my son had a sandwich.
After dinner, we strolled over a bridge to an area where lanterns are made. There were people selling tiny lanterns made with cardboard, which are released into the river for good luck, similar to the Thai custom during Loi Krathong.
All lit up.
Love all the lights and lanterns.
Lanterns hanging from trees.
Dinner on a boat.
Cute little dogs all dressed up, hanging out in front of a shop.
A book store.
A Japanese covered bridge.
On the bridge.
A temple on the bridge.
The bridge from afar.
When this woman realized I was taking a picture of her, she started calling out to me to buy her goods.
Streets of Hoi An.
Love these structures.
Not sure where this doorway led to.
Colorful bowls at the market.
A peek at the market.
The vendors are so good at balancing their goods on their shoulders, no matter how much they have or how heavy they are.
I couldn't get enough of the architecture in Hoi An.
A pretty little shop.
The dreaded boat tours.
This t-shirt appealed to the biologist in my husband.
There were shuttles provided by our hotel to get into town and back to the hotel, which was almost two miles from town. Still, we had to take a taxi at times because the shuttle came at inconvenient times. Other than the shuttle, though, it was pretty inconvenient to get from Hoi An to other places. Actually, it wasn't inconvenient to get to other places, but rather, it was a chore and inconvenient to figure out how to get out of Hoi An without being ripped off. 

For our trip back to the Da Nang train station from Hoi An, we asked the hotel concierge about our transportation options. The hotel provided the service of a car to the train station, but it would cost us 500,000 dong. Meanwhile, everyone we spoke to at the hotel offered us their "friends" who could drive us for 400,000 dong and no less. Finally, we decided to suck it up and take the bus, getting a taxi to take us to the bus station. On the way to the bus station, the taxi driver turned on the meter, but continued to try to persuade us to let him drive us to the train station instead of the bus station close by for 400,000 dong. I countered with 300,000, but he refused and countered with 390,000. My son, who didn't want to take the bus, got into the mix and advised me to offer 370,000. I told the taxi driver I would pay 350,000 and no more, and if he didn't agree, he could just take us to the bus station. Finally, he made a phone call and agreed to charge us 350,000. He left the meter on, though, and pointed out, at the end of a lengthy and meandering ride, that the meter showed a charge of over 500,000 dong, trying to make us feel bad for getting a "good deal." I immediately told him, "Yes, but you took us the long way!" He had no response for that, but shot daggers at me with his eyes. Did he really think we wouldn't notice that he took a different route than our first driver and that this drive was much longer than the last one going into Hoi An (and not because of traffic)?

Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable two-day stay in Hoi An. The atmosphere couldn't be beat, the distinctive architecture was beautiful and interesting, the food was varied and delicious, and the weather was pleasant. What more could one ask for?

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