This is a story about people rather than places.
Unlike the chaos of Hanoi and the let down of Hue, Hoi An far exceeded expectations. Yes it’s a nice place, the town is pretty and the beach is great. But it was the people we met that shaped our experiences here.
I’ll start at the beginning.
We were dropped on An Bang beach, 3km north of the main city by a moody tour guide around 2pm. We were tired. We were pissed off.
It was hot, he had dropped us in the wrong place and we were pissed off from a journey that promised lots but delivered little.
We’d travelled over the famous Hai Van Pass. This is, as Julie keeps reminding me, the mountain range Top Gear completed by motorbike. To be honest I wish she’d stop talking about Hammond but it is what it is.
Our plan was to do this by motorbike. We hired a guide, we’d follow on our bike. It’s a popular way to make this journey and I was pretty excited to drive the bike for four hours through some amazing scenery.
But, as we arrived in the morning with all our stuff the tour company changed the script. ignoring the deal we’d agreed the night before they doubled the price!
Wankers. We were insulted and gutted.
So in no uncertain terms we told them to do one (I’m proud to say Julie was particularly effective at demonstrating our position on this) and tried to get a bus. There are two buses a day from Hue. One had departed just as we were telling the motorbike tour guides what we thought of them, the other six hours later.
Six hours is a long time to spend in this shithole (see what I did there?) so we searched for alternative arrangements and ended up here
Well we were actually next door at the Mandarin Cafe but I saw this sign as a, well as a sign.
Things would be OK. Good old GGoogle.
So we booked a guide to take us by car instead. I can’t remember our guide’s name but for the purposes of our story let’s call him Clive.
Clive was, we were assured a fantastic guide, spoke fantastic English and excellent driver. We’d have a great experience and would enjoy the wonders of Elephant Springs (for $10 extra), the Hai Van Pass, a beach and Marble Mountain. He sounded like a hero.
On first meeting, Clive did indeed seem a nice chap although I must admit to some doubts regarding his English. Even if I shouted he didn’t seem to understand.
We set off on our merry way.
Our first stop was Elephant Springs. We were intrigued into the history of the spring, what was behind the name and the people that lived there and couldn’t wait to hear what Clive had to say.
We pulled up. We were the only car there, everyone else on bikes. Bastards.
But at least we had Clive. Clive would show us the way and unearth local insights only he knew. Right? Clive?
Would he bollocks. He got out the car, pointed towards a path and proclaimed “that way”. He then trotted off to hang out with his cooler motorbike guide mates.
Hmmm, his crown had certainly slipped and we started to think we hadn’t got the guide we thought we had. Anyway, we went up to the waterfall.
We presume the reason it is called Elephant Springs is because there is a carved Elephant in the rock. Why someone has done this however, we do not know. I suspect it is a classic take on Vietnamese branding (we were to encounter many Elephant falls on our travels, each without real elephants but each with their own carved statue).
At parts the water was savage but me being the man that I am jumped in for swim. Well I lowered myself in, stuck to the sides and held onto the rope.
We took some photos, paid a guy some money and headed back down to meet Clive. Next stop the beach.
The beach turned out to be a beach resort full of Russians on coach trips eating lunch. We headed through the restaurant, over the building site and onto the sands which, I have to admit was pretty nice. But by this point we were both in pretty dire moods which can explain our miserable faces here:
We decided to hot foot out out of there and headed back to the car to find Clive. Clive wasn’t at the car. Clive was sitting down to lunch with his mates.
‘What’s that Clive? You haven’t finished? Ah no worries mate, we’ll just sit in the car and wait for you then. You take your time Fella.’
He finished his lunch and we set off up the Hai Van Pass, excited to see the view at the top.
Oh well, let’s just get to the beach where we can have a beer and relax.
“No Clive, don’t worry about Marble Mountain mate. You crack on son and get us to An Bang beach”.
The next hour’s drive was spent in silence.
Which, in a very long winded way brings me back to the beginning of our story. And arriving hot & bothered in the wrong place. But this is in fact, where things started to get better, a lot better.
We dived into the nearest restaurant to cool down, get a drink and use their wifi. I got in touch with the hotel to tell them the problem but it turns out that although we were in the wrong place, we were actually closer to the hotel than the agreed drop zone. Maybe Clive had pulled this out of the bag?
Kim, our very welcoming host came over to meet us at the restaurant. Whilst we were waiting we realised they served wine in this restaurant and at very reasonable prices too. It was Vietnamese wine mind, but at £3 a bottle (all real wine in Vietnam costs the same as a couple of nights accommodation) it’d be a missed opportunity not to try it. It’s turns out it’s alright as well. Well alright in fact.
Obviously we settled in, ordered some food and a few more wines. Things were looking up. Kim took our bags to the hotel and said to come over when we were ready. Kim turned out to be such a star during our stay making us feel very welcome and even inviting us down to the local celebrations within the village for Solidarity Day.
Anyway, we struck up conversation with a Belgian chap sitting on the table next to us. He must have been in his late 50s. A nice guy, somewhat of an over-sharer. Within minutes we were listening to how he had moved over from Europe in March and that his son and daughter had followed him. He was still able to work (I think he was a writer or illustrator) and his other son lived in Pattaya, Thailand. This raised eyebrows our end which of course he saw.
For Pattaya is the sex trade capital of Thailand and yes, his son was a pimp. But a responsible one, a fair trade one if you will.
We also got chatting to Hun who ran the restaurant and told us of how she had saved her dog from certain death when rescuing it from the streets following a car accident a few years ago. Her dog was ugly, covered in sores and walked with a limp, but so lovely. She had paid for her to be taken by overnight bus (36 hour return) to Hanoi for treatment and it now had an entire metal leg. This story was quite heroic and Julie and I were both taken with the two very different individuals we had met.
We began to think we’d like it here.
As we were finishing up and about to head over to the hotel we spotted a couple we had met whilst on our trip to Hanoi Bay. Whilst this wasn’t mind blowingly unexpected (we knew they were here) it was still a surprise just to bump into them.
Dan and Kate, a Kiwi couple who have been living in Canada for the last few years are making their way home, the long route via Asia. Over the next few days we spent a lot of time with these guys and had a lot of fun (mostly eating and boozing at the same restaurant we first arrived in) until they carried on their journey to Nha Trang.
Hoi An city itself has a unique old town where all motorbikes and cars are banned from entering. The old (Chinese and Japanese influenced) buildings are fantastically preserved and the quiet a welcome distraction.
Also dotted around Hoi An are thousands of tailors who can make anything. You go in, they had you huge catalogues; everything from Armani to Next, and you choose what you want.
If we were going home I’d have got a suit but instead I went for a couple of pairs of (short) shorts. Julie got an amazing dress made in which she looks more beautiful than ever.
The peace and quiet of Hoi An lasted until this fella arrived.
It was his birthday a few days before and we had planned to meet further south in Nha Trang. Making this work was harder than expected and James ended up coming to us a few days later. James, Chloe and her sister Xanthe got there on the Thursday and we left on the Friday. It was the briefest of encounters but great all the same.
36 hours of fun ensued with CJB’s, balloons, Vietnamese wine and Periscopes in the back of taxis setting the tone for the Thursday night whilst being sick in my mouth and sweating out hangovers on the beach set Friday afternoon’s.
Despite the hangover it was great seeing them all and it was with heavy hearts we left that evening to get the night train to Nha trang, some 500 km south.
The beach at An Bang is lovely and it isn’t as built up as it’ll surely become. The city is nice and definitely a highlight of Vietnam. But it has to be said that what really made our time there great was the people we met and spent time with, the friends we made and the old faces we got to see again.