When I woke up, it was raining even heavier than it had been the day before, and my apprehension rose. However, when my guide arrived, he seemed confident that the trip would be fine. He gave me some very heavy duty waterproofs to wear for the journey in case the weather did get bad (which also worked as wind protection), and packed up my bags in double layers of plastic before harnessing them to the bike. I said goodbye to the gentlemen of Ngoc Binh, and off we went.
The staff had pre-asked my guide (Lok) to take me to the Japanese coated bridge on the outskirts of the city, so that was the first stop. Its a beautiful bridge that can only be accessed by foot (not even bikes allowed, which is rare in Vietnam) and as it’s outside of the cities, survived the war and is the original deal.
Next up was a quick stop in the small fishing village. This is a tiny collection of houses situated on the lagoon. Lok explained that here, people will go out into the lagoon and pitch their nets in the evening, then spend the night out on the water. Then in the early morning they’ll return to harbour with their catch, and sell to the dozens who come out here. The buyers then take the fish into Hanoi to sell. The boats themselves were mostly very simple, and each had both a pile of nets and a pile of blankets for the evening.
It started raining again in this village, and I started to get worried when the mist started to coat everything. However Lok continued on, and when we reached a pass, the weather, although cold, had dried up, and the roads were perfectly dry. We stopped a few times on this pass to get photos, before driving through a small town on a beach next to multiple flooded rice fields, and then onto the whole reason for this trip. The Hai Van Pass.
God bless the men of Ngoc Binh for convincing me to go through with this trip. The Hai Van Pass is unbelievably beautiful. With no rain, and minimal mist I got the perfect breathtaking views I’d been dreaming of pretty much since I decided to come to Vietnam. I honestly don’t know how I’m supposed to describe what I saw – every single time you were certain it couldn’t get any better, you turned a corner and it DID. I was on that bike the better part of 3 hours before we were through and honestly couldn’t have told you that – my eyes were just focused on the scenery on my right and left, to the point I had a crick in my neck by the end of it all.
Not that it was all good. Understandably the wind becomes intense once you reach the highest point, and the trucks and buses that use this road can be a little terrifying. Lok had wedged between several along the way and had a few minor scares as to where he was going, but never anything dangerous.
There is a stop midway up the Pass, teeming with tiny cafes and souviner shops. This is a natural reaction to the monument corroding at the top of the pass – an old Army base from the war. The wind here was phenomenal, and the buildings themselves falling apart, but still incredible to see.
Needless to say I was in a good mood from the trip, to the point where I even bought a souviner from one of the shops, a cylindrical pendant with a silver dragon wrapped around a piece of marble. Even got them to haggle to price down too. We stopped one last time after that on the pass, for one final photo and to remove our water/wind protection, as we’d finally reached Danang, and sunshine for the first time since I’d arrived in Vietnam.
So far, everywhere I’d been to in Vietnam had a distinctly Asian feel to it. Even Hue, which has an incredible French presence felt than Asia. However, when we rolled into Danang, I was half certain we’d made a wrong turn and ended up in San Francisco. There’s palm trees, a beautiful collection of suspension bridges, and beach with beautiful clear water and a perfect ribbon of soft sand.
Didn’t stay too long here though – because we’d been on the road since 8:30 and it was lunchtime. Lok took me to a small Vietnamese cafe, where they served fish soup, for nearly half what I’d been paying for my meals (benefit of places that cater strictly to locals/people who can read Vietnamese). He also gave me some advice on how to eat the extra condiments often added to tables (everything from salad, to chilli peppers/sauce, lemon, onion, hot sauce etc). Decided to try a bit of everything, but went a bit overboard and over spiced my soup. What I ate that wasn’t burning my tongue off was excellent though – broth, noodles and 2 types of fish, steamed and fried.
We still had one more stop in Danang before we made the final push for Hoi An though. A place known as Marble Mountain, a collection of limestone and marble hills in Danang. At the foot, you can find the village of Non Nuoc, with its dozens of marble shops, where the trade of sculpting has been passed down from Master to apprentice pretty much since the art began. I even got to go behind a store to see some of the works in progress in action.
Only one of the hills, Thuy Son is available to visitors, and Lok said he would be waiting for me at the bottom as it cost to enter. I paid up the 15,000 dong fee, and walked up the 156 steps to see what the fuss was about.
Best entry fee I spent in Vietnam. I can’t believe how much is up here! At first, I assumed it was just another Buddhist temple, since once you reach the top of the steps, that’s exactly what you see. A temple, surrounded by marble Buddhas. However, there was a small path behind the temple, leading to a cave. Inside, small Hindu and Buddhist statues and temples, literally carved out of the rock. Very dark – I ended up having to turn the light of my video camera on as a flashlight – but well rewarding when you came across the altars and the high rising roofs.
I headed back out, quite satisfied with what I’d seen, but still had a staircase to climb. There’s a very tall pagoda here, which is as beautiful as any pagoda I’d seen, and again, more pathway.
There’s no end to this place! I walk up another set of heavy steps and come to a high gate. Within it, there’s yet another cave, and a group of tourists climbing the rock face next to it. I’m assuming they were part of a tour rather than an option to do up there as they’d brought quite a bit of equipment, but it was fascinating to watch them climb the cliff. Always been tempted by rock climbing – done it indoors a few times but always struggle once you get past a certain height.
This cave wasn’t as large as the first, and only had a small temple and statue in front, but also had a smaller cave with a collection of marble rock and mud leading up to it. An awful lot of people needed help getting in and out, and I was grateful for my hiking shoes. Inside there’s no statues or temple, but there is writing on the walls and the a rock slide suggests there might have been one before.
Next segment along (and getting acutely aware that I’ve been up here at least an hour and left poor Lok on the ground waiting), the road splits into 3, and I first head up some very high stairs. Very steep and numerous (and boy am I becoming aware of just how out of shape I am if I was out of breath after just a few – really need to be stretching and moving more), and eventually just run out to be replaced with random rocks. If you’re willing to climb the next several metres, you get rewarded with a near panoramic view of the area.
Headed down and went in another direction. Wouldn’t you know it, another cave.
But this one was by far the best. My camera is atrocious as capturing the insanity of this place, but you walked through a relatively normal cave, past several statues, and turn a corner to see a set of steps leading into what can best be described as a RPG dungeon boss level.
It has a stone floor. There are statues leading in and a giant Buddha embedded in the wall. Multiple temples along the walls, with altars within and areas you light incense and candles to pray. And above was a crack allowing sunlight in so you could capture all of this. It was unbelievable.
Sadly, I have to drag myself out of there and pray that there’s no more. Technically I have Lok for however long it takes, but I kind of feel bad leaving him waiting. On top of which, its getting unbearably hot and I’m wearing 2 long sleeved layers as I dressed for Hue and Hai Van, so would like to get on the road and get some wind soon. There’s one last temple that I sadly don’t have time to properly appreciate, and a path that can take you to see another view of the pagoda, and finally a small viewing platform quite high up and to the side. However, I figure I’ve already gotten equivalent photos from the mountain climb, and decide not to bother climbing yet another collection of steps, instead heading down the exit ones, just as steep as those going up.
Takes some time to get back to the start point, made harder by the multiple Vietnamese stalking me and trying to get me inside their shops, but I succeed and Lok takes me back onto the highway, and along one of the bridges, giving me a fantastic view of a bridge in Danang shaped like a dragon. Really wish I’d managed to get a photo of it.
We finally arrive in Hoi An just before 15:00, and Lok has one last stop for me before my hotel. Hoi An is famous for its tailors, and he stopped at one ‘Tuong Clothes Shop’.
Admittedly, I went into this very green, and spent a long time worrying about it after the fact as I made 2 very big rookie mistakes. The first? Going to a place a tour guide/operator recommends rather than looking round myself.
However, the lady was very nice, and as it happens, I’d specifically come to Hoi An in the hopes that I could get a specific item in my wardrobe replicated. Specifically, my brown linen jacket – a staple item in my wardrobe that fit perfectly, was a great summer jacket, a pretty good base layer, and very durable. I love this thing to pieces, and have worn it regularly ever since I stole it from my mother back in my second year of university. However, I thought it would be nice if I could have this jacket in a brighter colour – specifically red.
She seemed apprehensive about it, especially since the jacket has some detailing that one might find hard to do in 24 hours – something I’d known and accepted – and she also tried to see if I was interested in any jackets/pants/shirts as well. I was, but financially and spacially, I was in no position to buy more. She did tempt me with a very nice blazer though, and was definitely considering buying it too – in hindsight I should have looked at the shirts, but figured getting a shirt fitted in one day might be pushing it. I have never had a shirt fit comfortably without buying big.
She gives me the estimates for the price. There’s no way I can afford it, and tell her so. Eventually decide I just want my jacket copied, and the price goes down to what I’d expected. I have to give her a deposit, and I make my second mistake – I learned later that you’re supposed to haggle the deposit down to around 25%, so the staff have more incentive to do a good job. Pay too much and then don’t like it? They keep your money and then sell your item on, doubling their profit. I however, given them pretty much what they ask.
Jacket will be ready around 15:30 tomorrow, so I hop back on the bike, and Lok hits the road again. Ten minutes later, I’ve arrived outside the nicest looking hotel I’ve stayed in so far. The Sunflower Hotel.
When I first walk in I can’t believe I’m getting this place for the price I am. The reception area is huge, with tables for socialising. In the back I can see a pool, and later inspection proves there’s also a night bar with a pool table. When I go up to my room, its big and spacious despite having 3 bunk beds, and we have a small balcony (although admittedly nothing worth seeing outside the window).
The room however, does end up being less nice than I thought it was, mostly due to my roommates. Three of them are guys travelling together, and not only do they reek quite strongly, but they’re also slightly ill. Great company they don’t make. Of the other 2, one is a girl who is pretty much in and out within minutes so don’t get to talk, and the other is a guy who is either sleeping or surfing his mobile each time I see him. Considering how many people are downstairs chatting and befriending their roommates, it feels a little lonely. I spend the first few hours just hanging around downstairs saving photos to my hard drive and nexus, and trying to find out what’s a good option to do in the evening in Hoi An.
Around 17:30, I decide to bite the bullet and go have a wander around the Old Quarter. As it happens, along the way 2 other girls from the Sunflower join me and we all head down together. Apparently, through complete dumb luck I’ve come to Hoi An on the perfect day. Its the 14th of the Buddhist calendar, and on the 14th in Hoi An, they have something known as the Full Moon Festival. Every month, cars are banned from the Old Quarter, and the streets are teeming with small coloured lanterns filled with a single candle. You can buy one of these cardboard lanterns, and then set it down on the river. There are also dozens of street performers and street sellers around this time too.
It sounded like a must do thing, and I was glad I’d managed to luck out on my dates without knowing. However, when I took out my camera to take a few shots of the market we were walking through?
No memory card.
I’d forgotten to take it out of the card reader after uploading my photos and it was back at the hotel! And as an added bonus, after carrying it around everywhere I’d forgotten to put my phone in my bag either, so I was completely camera-less.
Frustrating, but I wasn’t walking all the way back to the hotel in the dark on my own to get it. And if I’m honest, my video camera is awful at taking photos at night and I have no desire to drop even more money on a camera that can (admittedly I’m starting to worry that my video camera may be suffering from this constant use. Its designed to take long term video, not constant photos – but its never failed me yet,, so fingers crossed it can keep going, and I can give it a nice long rest when I hit Australia).
To be honest, the actual festival was slightly underwhelming. Because its dependant on people buying the lanterns, how impressive it is depends on the tourists and the locals showing up. The weather wasn’t great, so turnout was small, and as such the number of lanterns on the river was minimal.
We walked along the river regardless, and then headed into the old quarter to see what else was happening. Spotted some kind of singing performance, little children performing martial art patterns (adorable!) and a pinata-like event where you were blindfolded and had to try and small a clay pot hanging from a string.
Eventually we stop at a small cafe that sells Cao Lau, a traditional meal of Hoi An (basically pork with noodles) and aimed at the locals as much as tourists so not too badly priced. The size of the plates were significantly smaller than Hanoi and Hue though.
Before we headed back to the hotel, we decided to pop along the river one last time and see if any more lanterns had shown up since it was later. There were a quite a few more, though still not the river of lights we had expected. On a whim we decided to follow the lanterns and see where they went. Where we were in for a surprise…the road we’d originally come in on had flooded over, and now the restaurants on the river were now literally on the river. Most of the lights were floating that way, and people were collecting them from the steps of the restaurants.
No clue if that water was something that happened normally, or a freak accident. We thought it might have to do with the tide, as we watched it recede over 10 minutes…but then it came back. Either way, we spent a good 20 minutes laughing at the people having to parkour over the steps and use pipes and plants to get to the road (unless they went native and just waded through), and at the 2 hapless tourists who had left bikes locked to a lamp post a few metres into the river puddle, and now had no idea if they should try and get them or leave them till tomorrow.
When I get back to the hotel, I say goodbye to my new friends and head back up to my room. My roommates are all there, but the 3 guys head out more or less as I enter, and I crash for the night.
(unfortunately, get woken up at 3am by these 3 who are having an angry debate over who skipped out on paying for a meal, which I get in on by yelling a threat of the ‘stop it or I’ll make you’ variety. Not a good night at all).