Sapa to Saigon. Part III: Hoi An

7:25 AM Jessica Montgomery 0 Comments


     I arrived back to Hanoi via night bus at 4am. Hanoi was dark and asleep. I took a cab back to Little Hanoi Hostel as they knew I'd be getting back so early; they even offered me a bed for the day free of charge (amazing hostel, I highly recommend them).  My cab sped off and I was left outside, knocking on a roller shutter door, much like the initial start to my trip in Phnom Penh. The sleepy night attendant motioned for me to come inside with his eyes closed and one, big, sweeping hand gesture. I ducked under the door and entered the dark hostel to find yet another night attendant sleeping under one of the dining tables with his shirt off. The man who let me in soon joined him in another makeshift bed and I was left to my own devices in the pitch-black lobby. I guess I could've slept on one of the chairs, but I was up and felt strange sleeping in an open lobby by myself. I decided to jump on the computer and plan my next move. 
     I had originally intended to take overnight buses all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City. But, after hearing horror story after horror story of overnight buses crashing, breaking down, and being far less of a money-saver than imagined compared to flying, I decided to check out what flights were leaving this afternoon. After all, it was four in the morning and presumably, I could catch a flight later on today. I ended up finding that flights were only roughly ten US dollars more than an overnight bus. Ten dollars for cutting down a whopping 18 hours of travel time to an hour-something? I was sold. Literally. The backpacker in me was a bit red in the face, but sometimes practicality trumps the road-less-traveled. And, I was still considerably way under budget.  I booked a flight for 10am, and realized that this would be the first time in my life that I've booked a flight the day of taking it. Talk about spontaneity! I must admit, it felt a bit rebellious to tear up whatever vague itinerary I originally intended to follow back in Korea. If you have the time, I highly suggest traveling this way.  
     Hanoi's airport was great, security was a breeze, and I was graced with no flight delays. If this was a domestic flight in The States, you bet my 10am departure time would have expectedly morphed into, at best, an 11:30am departure time with possible further delay due to mechanic malfunctions, or something-rather... Come on USA! Get your stuff together!
     I arrived at my hostel/hotel in Hoi An and immediately felt bombarded. As soon as I left the steps of the hostel to go explore the town, I had already made a friend who wanted me to follow her to her clothes shop. She assured me that her's was the best and that she'd give me a great deal. Then, I made another friend who wanted me to do the same. And then one more, who also told me that her shop was the best. But wait, I thought the other lady's was? -Yes, I'm being cynical. But unfortunately that is one of the biggest things that I took away from Hoi An. Especially coming from the beauty that is rural Sapa, Hoi An was just rubbing me the wrong way.
     Once deep inside the yellow stucco walls of 'Ancient Town', it is quite the remarkable and beautiful place. A city of cultural cooperation and excellent seaside location, Hoi An was built by Chinese and Japanese merchants as a trading post for all of SouthEast Asia. This cultural merge is seen through the architecture, the temples, and the food of Hoi An. I absolutely adored the architecture and often felt confused by my whereabouts. Was I back in Hong Kong? Korea? Okinawa? I felt like I hit a SouthEast Asia wormhole and had been bouncing around in between. Hoi An does an impressive job of maintaining their historical sites and has a great system for tourists who wish to see them all. You can buy a 'historic site pass' and walk about freely between all the sites of Ancient Town. It is well worth the buy and is great for a day of self-guided exploration. You can visit almost all of them in a day.
Many of the temples and meeting halls are Chinese and built to honor specific Gods, methods of religion, or council practices. Walking about between the temples and city streets I didn't have the sense of occupation, but rather of cooperation. Contextually rare in this, and many parts of the world, Hoi An also remained untouched through many conflicts due to the changing river mouth. The changes were both Hoi An's death as well as it's future life. The river silt not only swallowed up it's trade ports but, in turn, also helped preserve and keep it safe from future conflicts.
Meeting Hall in Hoi An, 'Ancient Town'
     Aside from the temples, Hoi An is a fancy-schmancy European vacation destination. I felt like I was transported into the pages of an inflight travel magazine with all of the boutique restaurants, gift shops, and high-end merchants flooded by European tourists. If you are looking for fine dining on the cheap, or kitschy knick-knacks, or t-shirts that say "Rub My Belly For Luck" with a Buddha on the front then... Hoi An is waiting for you! Don't get me wrong, the scenery is beautiful and the architecture was a dream. But, there is little to do in the city centre aside from shopping and eating. I soon had to switch over my travel mind for a few short days in order to enjoy myself and not be annoyed. One of the biggest problems I had with Hoi An was not being able to talk to the locals. Much like Siem Reap in comparison to Phnom Penh, Hoi An was a tourist construct compared to Hanoi. I understand the severe wealth gap here and the romantic-facade implemented by the new traveler, but, in Hanoi I felt as if I could talk (or attempt to talk) to a local just for the sake of conversation and exchange. In Hoi An I felt chased. I felt like I had a big dollar sign plastered in the middle of my forehead. Which does make sense garnered on the surroundings. But, on a related note, it did hurt me to see how other tourists were treating the locals as well. It does wane on you, and I am a modest culprit of it, as exemplified by my disgruntled remarks about clothing shop owners chasing me down the street. But. There is a grave difference between listening and saying "No, thank you." and simply sticking your hand in someone's face as you sip you afternoon tea. No one is beneath you. And if you think that this is so, why even bother to visit their beautiful country? This angered me to no end.
     But, that being said, tourist-scams are high here. And, my rose-tinted view of people in general can sometimes lead me astray. For example, and no I'm not proud of this...I was scammed into buying, wait for it...wait for it...fruit. Alas! Fruit!  I was moseying around my last temple on my way back to my hostel-sanctuary and was approached by a beautiful women in a traditional Vietnamese hat and a fruit sling balanced on her shoulders. She asked if I wanted to buy anything and I told her no thank you. She smiled and was overall sweet about the whole thing. She noticed I was photographing the temple and said that I could take a photo of her. I rrrrreally wanted to because she had a great smile and the surroundings were perfect, but, I remembered Kate and I being photo-scammed back in Thailand and politely declined. She said "no money, no money", smiled, and posed. I gave in and took the photo. She then said, "You try!" and quickly placed the sling and hat onto my shoulders. Welp. Looks like I'm stuck in this one. She offered to take my photo and I knew I'd been got. She smiled again, put the sling on the ground and started displaying her fruit on the ground. I thought, Ok, Jessica. She's nice, you haven't bought anything today, and the fruit looks good. So, why not? I pointed to the lychees and asked how much. She quickly replied an inaudible reply and added mangos, bananas, and another type of berry to my pile. I said no, no, but she just started to bag them up. I shook my head and we both laughed, obviously for different reasons, and I ended up walking home with two bags full of tropical fruit. I guess it could've been worse, and I could've said no I guess...but this woman had one hell of a sales pitch. And I was alone. She smiled her winning smile once more and crossed the street back over to her friends who, you guessed it, we having a nice little  chuckle. Well, at least I had lunch for the next fews days! 
The Infamous Fruit Incident of 2014.
     I was bound to get out of the town centre as soon as possible and decided to take a tour of nearby Marble Mountain. I booked it through my hostel and inadvertently changed the course, yet again, of my Vietnamese adventure for the better. I was picked up, solo, by a van and my guide. My guide told me that this was not just a tourist van but rather an airport pick-up van and that we'd be picking up people along the way en route to the mountain. I understood this, but others did not. A riot almost ensued once the other passengers discovered that I was on a tour. Everyone thought that they were being scammed, yet again, into going on a tour, or stopping at a shop like many times before. (You can now see the skeptical sentiment and walls built up by tourists in Hoi An. They've had enough.) The language barrier was difficult between my Vietnamese guide and the Europeans in the van so I had to jump in and explain not to worry, you are going to the airport and I'm just being dropped off along the way. Sighs of relief were heard 'round. I spent the half hour drive chatting to one half of a German couple who, from what I could hear, hated absolutely everything. He hated the food, he hated the people, he hated his resort. Resort you say? Oh, well have you left your resort and explored at all? "No.", he said, "We like to stay at the resorts." But, I thought you just said that you hated it? Why. Why come all this way, for the second time, if you hate it so much? He was a sheer joy to talk to, and overall lifted my self esteem because I realized that I will never have such a downtrodden outlook as he. Yay for optimism!
     My tour of Marble Mountain, like I said, ended up being a personal tour as I was the only one on it. Turtle, as my guide wanted me to call him, was incredibly hard working and his vivacity towards his job was genuine and exciting. He was also quite funny. With a name like Turtle, how could you not be? We began our hike up the mountain and he showed me every crevice and secret the mountain had to offer. Stone and marble Buddhas could be found carved into the side of the mountain's alcoves and "rooms" often opened up to the sky welcoming in strings of light. It was beautiful and eerie, cool and muggy, and just the place I wanted to be. Turtle gave me great history and insight into this cryptic place as well. Marble Mountain was one of four mountains in the area and each represented a different sacred element. The mountains interior was once housed by Chinese merchants who considered it to be a sacred place and carved it as such. Inscriptions and Buddhas we carved throughout and the main atrium of the mountain was complete with alters and a grand staircase. Not only was this mountain a part of merchant history, it was also a part of Vietnam War history. Marble Mountain is  actually located closer to Da Nang rather than Hoi An, and if you are familiar with Vietnam War history then you will recognize the coastal city of Da Nang as a notable US Airbase during the war. Turtle informed me that some villagers and members of the Viet Cong used the mountain as shelter. They long went undetected, using up their resources and a natural spring from  within the mountain, until (legend has it) an elderly woman went mad from being inside, climbed to the top, and shot a rocket-propelled grenade at a US helicopter. US bombing ensued and the Viet Cong were found out. I found this story to be incredibly interesting because the large atrium of the mountain is now partially open to the sky due to the bombing that took place. Turtle prefaced his story with "Sorry, I know you're American but...". I assured him that I understood history is history and war is horrible on all fronts, but we must do our best to learn from it. 
Interior of Marble Mountain: Former Chinese merchant temple and later Viet Cong hideout.
     Since I was Turtle's only client he took me to a few, more athletically inclined, areas of the mountain. We hiked up and crawled through a small, rocky, tunnel in the pursuit of what Turtle called "heaven". We surfaced to the top of Marble Mountain and was greeted by a beautiful coastal breeze. In the distance we could see Da Nang beach and the surrounding "elemental" mountains. Turtle was great and insisted that I do a mini-photoshoot of sorts. I felt like I was hanging out with a friend rather than a tour guide. (If you're planning on heading to Hoi An anytime soon, be sure to find 'Mr. Turtle' on TripAdvisor, he's the best!) 
     I asked Turtle how he felt about the changing of Hoi An and the boom of the tourism industry here and in Da Nang. He had bittersweet feelings about it. Obviously, he has a job giving tours, which he loves. But on the other hand he feels as if the town in no longer "theirs". It is prosperous, and a new wave of jobs has entered the area because of it, but it is also very cutthroat. He told me that 15 years ago there was only one resort in the entire area between Hoi An and Da Nang. Now, there is over one hundred. Turtle genuinely loves tourists, for his own income and otherwise. But he is worried about the lasting effect it is already having on the working force of Hoi An. Many people have resorted to selling souvenirs, seeing it as a reliable income, but now the market is so saturated that they are still left in relative poverty and, in turn, have an overall bitterness for 'the tourist'. Makes sense all around.
"Heaven! Jessica! We are in heaven!"
     Back at my hostel I had the pleasure of meeting a girl who would soon become my Vietnam-parter-in-crime. Her name was Emma and she was an Aussie who had been traveling for the better part of seven months. Here I was already feeling burnt out after one... And, at only 22 years old, she was truly an inspiration and we clicked instantly. We had similar feelings on the ways of Hoi An and decided it'd be best if we embraced the low-budget luxury and indulge a bit. We dined together, drank together, we shopped together, and ended up going to an infamous Hoi An tailor shop together to get some custom clothing made. In the spirit of the merchants that once made Hoi An great, tailoring is a "must-do" tourist activity. I was a little put off by this at first and didn't really need to have anything made for me. But, Emma and I convinced each other and we soon found ourselves being measured for cocktail dresses. It was a girly indulgence and one that I'm overall happy to have taken part in. As we went back for our fittings another group of girls in the shop were having alterations and asked us our opinions. Something about hair salons, nail shops, bridal shops, and tailors just brings out the chatty-girly. I must admit...it was great fun! I walked away with two custom dresses and one romper in the span of two days. Not bad.
     Emma and I, for the most part, had separate adventures during the day but would always regroup at night. One night we ventured off to meet up with a girl whom I'd met previously at my hostel in Hanoi. I love travel outings like this! There's really nothing quite like friendships made on the road... We went out to a boutique restaurant, a little on the pricey side for Vietnamese standards, and then crossed the river to the "cheaper" side of town. Once you cross the illuminated bridge in Hoi An you are privy to a whole other side of the town. We could barely walk four feet without being bombarded with menus and flyers being pushed in your face. "Drink? Food? Come in and look!"  We settled on a little rooftop establishment that advertised 4,000 dong beer. That equates to a 19cent draft. Insanely cheap and a staple of the Vietnamese drinking scene. Cheap beer in Vietnam is often referred to as "fresh beer". Fresh beer is typically made by the establishment, often has a lower alcohol content, and runs out when it runs out. A well-welcomed relief from the heat and a perfect treat for the budget traveler.
     Hoi An at night is a beautiful sight. The streets and store fronts are lined with colorful lanterns, the bridges lining the river are all illuminated, and the buzz of Hoi An nightlife spills out into pools of light on its streets. There are endless things to photograph.

Twilight and rain at the Hoi An central market.
Our "lantern lady".

     I met up with Turtle once more and we ventured off on a half day bike tour of a small island across the river from the main markets. I met him at my hostel and we rented bicycles from a shop near by and rode through town to reach the port. We boarded a bustling, locals-only, ferry to the island and Turtle was sure to chat history to me so I wouldn't focus on all the stares directed my way.  We reached the island and biked around a beautiful village dock. We viewed some boats mid-build and he pointed out to me that every boat in Vietnam, even large ferries, have eyes painted on the front. This is done in superstition to ward off sea monsters. We biked a bit further and stopped by a few artisans doing inlay work and weaving. We stopped by the home of two women weavers. The two elderly women who lived there were busy as work weaving a colorful sleeping mat to sell across town. The women make five mats a day by hand and only amount to $5 USD per seven hours of manual work. The women were smiling and happy though and offered for me to try my hand at it. I failed miserably, haha.

This mat will no doubt be found in the discount pile on my accord...haha

      Many of the locals live across the river and sell their wares on the other side of town, the more touristy bit. The homes on this side of the river were beautiful, colorful, and welcoming. If I owned a home like that I'd be more than happy! Locals and their children waved to us as we biked by, and many recognized Mr. Turtle. We were typically greeted by "Hellos" and sweet waves, but one little kid took it upon himself to practice his bb-gun target shooting.... on me! My face in particular. As we biked by the little boy held out his toy gun, followed me and scanned as I passed. I was a bit uncomfortable at the thought of him aiming a gun, though a toy, at me. And was even more taken aback when he shot! Obviously. It was essentially harmless and all, but the impact and shock of it made my eyes well up. Perhaps this was a true sign of the disdain of tourists? Possibly. Turtle saw what had happened and was visibly embarrassed and didn't know what to do. My left temple was sore, but I felt even worse for Turtle. He was so embarrassed. I chose to let it go and pedal on. Turtle looked back in shame and tried to lighten the mood by mumbling, "Heh, naughty boy..." 
      Peppered throughout the homes were temples that were actually family shrines dedicated to their ancestors. Many of these shrines were housed in large compounds and often resembled Buddhist temples. The little villages opened up to countryside and rice patties, then on to a small river Turtle joked calling it the 'mini-Mekong'. We stopped at a small shop and had some local snacks, just the two of us, and Turtle showed me some incredible flora native to the area. He was such a fun guy to be around and truly helped transform my time in Hoi An. Turtle is your guy~!

Turtle leading the way!
     As a final thought, I would not return to Hoi An. I've met people who say that it is there favorite city in Vietnam, but it was not for me. It was delicious and I did end up leaving with a few souvenirs, but it's true saving grace was meeting Emma. If I had not of run into her I may have stayed pent up inside my hostel dorm room just waiting to leave. 
     Emma and I decided to leave Hoi An together and booked corresponding flights to Ho Chi Minh City. We were set on tackling our final and largest Vietnamese city together, and I couldn't of been happier. 

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