Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hội An - bikes, bartering and delicious bahn can.

We booked three nights in Hội An thinking that would give us enough time to scope it out for our return visit in a few weeks. Since we delayed all the historic stuff until the return visit, two nights probably would've been enough.

The town is pretty charming...

especially along the river

and at night

when they turn the lanterns on

... but unless you're shopping for hand-tailored clothes or visiting the historic sites, there really isn't a whole lot to do in Hội An itself. Other than, of course, spend your money on other things.

like these disappointing $3 pastries -
where's Porto when you need it?

So we hopped on the free bikes provided by our guesthouse and went for some rides.

just like everyone else in town
(bike ferries! why doesn't the Willamette have this?)

Hội An is both small and super bike-friendly, and we had no trouble meandering around the back roads just seeing what we could see.

neither of us are really bikers

which is odd considering
we lived in Portland

but the countryside was lovely

and their scarecrows would make Portland proud

There are marked bike routes around town and the surrounding villages, and we ended up doing almost all of them (maybe 30km or so?) over two days.

we stopped briefly at Tra Que Herb Village,
renowned for its fresh greens and herbs

we wandered through coconut groves and bamboo-making facilities
(pictured: bamboo drying on the roadside)

we saw some baby goats

we pretended we were going to buy this house

Otherwise, we made every attempt to avoid the madness downtown. Hoards of camera-cyclopsed tourists roamed the streets. Restaurateurs shouted at us to buy a drink at their happy hour, which was apparently every hour. Shop ladies beckoned to us to have a look at their fabrics and clothing, and fruit stand ladies shouted at us to buy fruit. (Really - that's what they said, "you buy some fruit!" We loved their straightforward approach.)

instead of all that we did a lot of this

And it was good.

Food notes:
  • we happened upon this cary chay stand around the corner from our hotel, and it was amazing
(vegetarian curry)
  • we took a chance on a local cafe for dinner one night, and while it wasn't the cleanest establishment (which we didn't really learn until we'd ordered), our meal was delicious
(we think it's squid and noodles)
  • we had lunch at the market one day, a bit overpriced but still an amusing experience
lady on the left: the queen of multitaskers -
she could take your order
while cooking your neighbor's food
and recruiting new customers
  • we had surprisingly inexpensive vegan noodles downtown at Quan Chay Dam one evening
lots of locals were eating here
which means it's good
  • we tried Loi's cao lầu (a Hội An specialty) right across from Mermaid Restaurant
pork, greens, noodles -
its simplicity was delicious
  • but the real treat was Tuat Banh Can, also across from Mermaid Restaurant, which we randomly found on a food blog
wonton-like quail eggs and
fresh pork sausages

  • and yes, we did buy some fruit
Lodging notes: Nature Homestay was a little expensive compared to other hostels/hotels, but a decent breakfast was included and they had free bike rentals (which were $5/day on average elsewhere), so all in all it was worth it. The homestay was also far enough from downtown that we found cheap eats and snacks at local markets for a fraction of the downtown prices. But not so far from downtown unless you have issues with walking 20 minutes.

(and we had a sitting area which was nice)

Hội An isn't easily accessible by public transit and you definitely pay to get there and to leave, and the train station is in the next town so you can't book tickets yourself.  The homestay offered all kinds of booking services but we saved money by finding agents downtown to book our car to Danang and our train from Danang to Hue. It was a lot more time(and patience!)-consuming but worthwhile considering we probably saved $10 (that's like, five meals for one of us).  We learned some valuable lessons booking on our own... Most importantly: never pay sticker price for travel services, and shaking your head and walking away is a pretty effective way to watch the price magically drop.

(There's some kind of fine line between politely haggling to get a decent price and shrugging, saying "it's just a dollar to us", and letting it go. We haven't mastered this fine line yet and we lean toward the shrug approach. In theory this just perpetuates the behavior of the merchants - and often times the money just goes into their pocket and not to those who really need it - but they're going to do it anyway so is our frustration really worth it? Jury's still out.)

Anyway! So long, Hội An. We'll see you again soon with friend in tow and we'll enjoy your wonderful history then. For now, we need some mountains and caves... A brief stop in Hue (ed. note - which we liked a lot, more to come) and then Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng National Park, please!