Vietnam isn’t a country that dyslexics should travel. With their Hanois and their Hoi Ans, the Dalats and the Danangs it can put some doubt in the mind of the most seasoned traveller. My trip from Dalat to Hoi An was courtesy of a low budget airline, the ominous named Bamboo Airways. Given the insanely cheap fare and that name I knew there was an outside chance that this may be my final day in Vietnam and on this earth. Bamboo Airways is the (budget) younger sibling of Vietnam Airlines, in much the same way Jetstar is involved in an incestuous arrangement with Qantas. The Stephen Baldwin of the Vietnamese skyline. Was relieved to see that the plane was actually constructed with what looked to be carbon fibre. I know that bamboo is a rugged building material but I don’t have any faith in bamboo when dealing with Bernoulli’s principle of aerodynamics. Part of my was thinking that a bamboo plane would just be a like taking a ride in a huge panflute and if we happened to jag the correct velocity we could have our very over cross country rendition of Amazing Grace at 28,000 feet. I should not have worried, the whole trip went smoother than a sharp fitted suit.
Though Hoi An is a hotspot for the Vietnam tourist, its nearest airport is Danang which is about 30km north. As the taxis are a bit hit and miss I had organised a private driver for the grand sum of $25AUD, For that I was picked up by a kid who may or may not of had his licence but there was a handwritten sign with my name on it and the destination and that was good enough for me. Flashing my passport in his direction he smiled, grabbed my bags and I got my second experience of riding shotgun in Vietnam’s motorised chaos. For the next forty-five minutes we weaved in an out of traffic, beeping fellow road users for politeness, urgency and sometimes for the hell of it. His English was limited but he did point out the Dragon Bridge, casino and the beach. Once again he foisted his shitty dance music upon me and I wish I could get away, the Vietnamese version of a knock on the door from the Jehovahs. Though nobody got injured during the ride there is always a couple of close calls and there were times I took comfort in the sign on the passenger side glovebox that read “8 Airbags”. When the car in front decided to slam on the brakes and do a U-turn without indicating I was thinking that I could well be getting up close and personal with each of said airbags. Credit where credit is due, the kid got me there intact with only a mild case of hypertension.
Hoi An itself is a relatively small town which main industry is tourism. Located in on the coast in Central Vietnam it was relatively unscaved during the various wars, and each of the buildings is a bright duckling yellow. One could easily imagine any structure here adorning the front of a postcard or clogging up a social media feed. Even though I have never been, there were times where I thought this is what Mexico would look like. With the picturesque scenery comes the hoards of tourists, most risking life and limb to get that perfect holiday memory before being cleaned up by the local green taxis. It was late afternoon by the time I checked into the hotel and got to experience this place on foot. I was able to snap a couple of decent photos for once.
When Anthony Bourdain visited Hoi An as part of one of this travel shows he made a big proclamation that this place was home to the best bahn mi in the known universe. I agree but not the particular one that he devoured. It’s one of those age old battles where you are in one camp or the other and not both. I pledged my allegience to Madam Khan Bahn Mi Queen early and stayed loyal over the three days. I had been slightly disappointed with the bahn mis over the last week but that all changed. I was expecting good but not death row final meal great. At $2 AUD each I had to keep the local economy humming along by ordering two – the top selling various meats option and the chicken. What makes it so good is hard to pinpoint, but they do manage to get some meat juices in there which are quickly absorbed by the bread in a perfect union. Will be back here for sure. Free wi-fi, delicious bahn mi and cheap beer, what else does a man need?
The sun was starting to hide behind the horizon so I headed to the markets on the banks of the river to see what was on offer. Having just eaten this was more a fact finding mission for an early start tomorrow. So much for that plan, I met an older lady who shared my love for desserts with kidney beans, corn and ice (che as mentioned previously). I took up my double stacked stool in the middle of the markets and she started ladeling out the goodness.
The che gave me enough energy to head back to the hotel, where there is a narrow bridge that links the neighbouring island to the centre of Hoi An. This thing can accommodate a car and possibly a motorbike but that doesn’t stop the locals from trying to squeeze two cars and a Scandinavian cyclists abreast of each other. Across the road from the hotel is a small cafe come bar which is ruled by Ms Hong. Open 24/7 see is happy to serve a coffee, tea, beer or a plate of Ritz. Every night I would call in there before crossing the road to the hotel for the latest gossip around town.
My room at the hotel was exactly what I wanted. The best feature was the biggest fan I have seen for quite a while. If Kenny Loggins wants to film a music video for his song on the Top Gun sequel soundtrack I have the fan just for him.
Because of this the air conditioner remote didn’t see my fingerprints which is a good thing because I discovered that there was a family of birds joining me in my room, hiding at the back of the unit. The staff like to keep the balcony doors open but my fear of the mosquitoes (malaria anybody?) and the outside noise meant that the fan was working harder than a ten year old in a sweat shop. Originally I thought the chirping noise was just part of the bigger noises from across the road, joining in on the fun with the dogs and rooster, but when the traffic died down I realised that they were joining me in room 403 for the night. If I turned the aircon on I feared that room may have looked as if it was the venue of an over vigorous pillow fight. I wasn’t going to keep the balcony door open for them but the aircon unit was directly over the mini bar and I was more to pick up the tab if my new family wanted to treat themselves to a Kit Kat, sparkling bottled water or some instant noodles.
The next morning I was woken early by Miss Hong’s rooster. Time for a trip across the road for a coffee and to see if I can kill that bloody thing for a decent night’s sleep. I couldn’t bring myself to throw the rooster into some oncoming traffic but I did discover that I could get my dirty, stinking washing done for $1.50AUD per kilo. That is washed, folded and all done before the sun goes down. Saves me staring at the clothes getting dizzy in a communal laundry. More time I can devote to exploring and gnawing.
Miss Hong was my Vietnamese (non-tiger) Mum while I was in Hoi An, making sure I had a coffee or a beer within reach depending on the hour. A little pocket rocket of a women who would always beckon me across the road with some local tid bit of information and a friendly smile. She was able to organise my trip back to the airport for half price (and stress). If she was able to discuss the 1997 Grand Final and recite the You Am I back catalogue I may have got down on one knee?
Part of the markets in Hoi An are undercover and are devoted solely to food and drink. Behind a cabinet are all the various ingredients, all you need to do is point to a menu and within minutes you are chewing on something delicious.
I was walking through the markets, vendors trying to get my attention, “Strewth Cobber, g’day mate” in an accent that was surprisingly uncanny. One of the guys eating at one of these cabinets stopped me and wanted to talk about the Hoodoo Gurus (I was wearing their shirt) so I parked my bum down and enjoyed some food while breaking down the merits of Mars Needs Guitars and Blow Your Cool. He was Australian working over here as a surf instructor and said the pork noodles were worth shelling out for. As soon as word got around that I was eating the drink lady shoved a drinks menu that had every possible combination of fruits on it.
I could have went and got a fried food fix, but thought better of it and went for the dish that is considered the most Hoi An of anything available. It is a noodle dish (surprise surprise) Cau Lao. What makes this so special are the noodles are made from the water from a well which is found in the centre of the town. Apparently this water has some special qualities. I was unable to verify this claim as I misplaced my hydrology degree but the particular well is the lifeblood of Hoi An. I was unable to get a photo as a bevy of older ladies sat around seemingly keeping guard. My first attempt they were telling me I had to get my shoes cleaned so I decided the harassment wasn’t worth it. The dish itself has very little liquid and is topped with fried noodle squares for a bit of crunch. The noodles are chewy and this particular one came with some prawns. I also tried the pork version as well, with pork loins chopped up and replacing the prawns.
Not that I tried them the vendors at the markets had the pizza topped with whole prawns and anything else you wanted deep fried. For some reason the Thai influenced banana pancake was very popular?
Time for a bit of a stroll to walk off the full tummy. What could happen next? Stay tuned.