Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Day 11 - North to Hanoi

On the river terrace on our last morning in Hoi An.

And so it was time to say goodbye to Hoi An. We were up early to make the most of our last morning. Trouble was, our shoemaker was being a pain in the... well a pain in the foot really.

We'd gone in two days before and been measured up and chosen some designs from a couple of magazines. The next day, we'd had a late fitting and things had not gone well. All our shoes had either been too small or the soles way too thin. Design-wise, things were fine.

We'd told them clearly that we had little time to lose on this day as we had to leave from the hotel just after 12. They'd said this was fine but when we went in at 10, they told us to come back in half an hour.

Half an hour later we were told to wait. It was getting perilously close to 11am. Then, back came the shoes. Mine seemed to fit (it was only when I got back to Korea that I realised they were too small!) but Sheena's boots were so narrow that she couldn't zip them up. I have to say this though, the Vietnamese reputation for tenacity and pursuing something to the very end, which the US discovered to their cost, is absoluately true. Putting Sheena on the back of a motorbike wearing her boots, they drove her over to one of the workshop which serve all the shoe shops in Hoi An.

Flying through the town on the back of a stranger's motorbike on her way to who knows where, Sheena found it all slightly bizarre and amusing. She turned up at a place where tens of shoemakers were crafting footwear under mountains of leather and rubber. In this hive of activity, Sheena was remeasured and her boots altered magically so that, within minutes, they fitted.

Sheena came back to the shop and then headed back to the hotel to pack up our stuff and get ready to leave. This left me to pay. Now, the first thing I'd said to the woman running Happy Soles (for this was the name of the shop) was that we'd have to pay by Visa. No problem she said. But it had been a problem when it came to paying the deposit. She couldn't use the machine and had to call some guy who came and did it for her. It was too much to ask that she would pay attention enough to do it hereself when it came to the final payment. She tried it three times and even took my card over the road to a friend's shop to try it there. No joy.

I was getting a bit irritated now as I had precious little time to waste before we had to leave to catch our flight to Hanoi. She was being very pushy, demanding cash which I didn't have and refusing to give me my credit card back. Eventually, there was nothing for it but to call the same guy again to do the same thing again. Thankfully, it worked. I virtually ran back to the hotel.

If you're ever in Hoi An and need shoes, don't bother checking out Happy Soles - Unhappy Sales more like.

But we had another city to get to grips with, a few hours later, we were picked up from Hanoi airport by a man with hairiest mole we'd ever seen. At first we thought it was simply a fetish he had... then we spotted lots more men sporting hairy moles. It seems they must be revered, perhaps as indicators of wisdom. A macabre tendency to scare people more likely. The hairs on these moles are usually white and we saw some at least ten cm long. The men who sport them are always clean shaven except for the mole. It's a little bit like someone keeping a bonsai tree. I imagined them spending hours pruning and carefully training the hairs to grow in particular directions.

Perhaps the mole was an omen and we should have taken notice. It turned out that the man was taking us not to the Old Quarter of town, as we had thought but to just south of the lake about 2km from where we'd booked. There seemed to be a simple explanation for this: we were going to the Lotus Hotel and, sure enough, the Lotus was on our map just south of the lake. THe only spanner in the works was that we had booked at the Tung Trang Hotel north of there. When we arrived outside it, it looked nothing like the place I'd seen on the web and inside it looked even stranger.

The entrance was through a restaurant and then up some ladder-like stairs. Our room literally opened onto a reception that the receptionist slept in (and watched TV in until we told him to can it.) The room had twin beds and was filled with furniture that was obviously leftover from a car boot sale that hadn't quite been succesful. We had a wardrobe but couldn't get into it as it was blocked by a coffee table and a chair covered in spots of paint. Our "bathroom" resembled a greenhouse of frosted glass. Clearly, this was not what we'd booked.

If they hadn't had our name on a sign at the airport I'd have thought we'd been snatched by a rival hotel. But they'd even spelled our name right so it wasn't completely bogus. Perhaps the orignal hotel had been overbooked and they'd passed us on to this place. But it was a room and we knew we could look elsewhere. We dumped our stuff and headed into town.

I guess experience has taught me this but, just before we left, I clarified the room rate with the receptionist. $25 I was told. Surprising this as it had been $12 in an email I had a copy of. Okay, $15 then with breakfast. No, er, $12 or nothing.

Teddy bear anyone... please someone take a teddy bear!!!

We walked through town discovering Hanoi (basically Saigon with trees and older buildings) and headed for an obscure travel agent's office in the Old Quarter. We were going to the nerve centre of the place that had booked the hotel in Hoi An for us, the Vinh Hung resort. There, we pleaded our case and asked for a $40 refund, the difference between the room price we'd paid and had actually stayed in. After a bit of persuasion, and a call to the hotel reception to check we weren't pulling a fast one, we were very glad that they paid. Nothing but an apology though for not telling the hotel we needed a car to collect us from the airport.

A typical street with typical tourists in the Old Quarter of Hanoi

Take your pick ladies: wood, copper, rubber or stone!

We ate out and went home to our strange room...

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Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Day 10 - Trying things on for size

If you want something tailored in Hoi An, you need at least three days there. If you want to enjoy yourself, you need much longer. We had three full days so you can guess how we felt.

By now I'd been fitted for everything from shorts and shoes to shirts and a suit. Sheena had not only ordered shoes but three lots of clothes from two different tailors. This meant that we had unintentionally filled our days with repeated fitting sessions at each of these places. You also had to take their requests to come at a certain time with a pinch of salt. Even when we turned up intentionally late, we'd be asked to come back in half an hour.

We did still manage to fit in bits of Hoi An in between though:

Idyllic scene? Shortly after this, she squatted down and urinated in the alley!

I was going to play pool but after reading this, I decided on a spot of idol worship. (Click to enlarge)

The woman here is wearing traditional Vietnamese dress called Ao Dai. She's a high school student and this is what they wear.

A range of eggs. The ones on the top left in the green bowl were so large they must have split the chicken.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

Day 09 - A (Not That) Merry Christmas

The lovely riverside terrace. Looks deceive.

Our dreams of a great night's sleep were shattered around 5am when the entire fishing fleet of Vietnam rolled past our bed on their way to an outboard motor expo. At least, that's what it sounded like. The romance of a riverside room vanished in an instant. Hardly a great way to start Christmas Day.

When we'd finally given up trying and had got up and had breakfast (pretty good buffet), we headed to reception to request another room. Their suggestion initially was to give us a room two doors away on the river. Er... no... that's hardly going to be any quieter is it. Then they showed us a room where workmen were laying a stone path outside complete with angle grinders. They weren't quite getting the point. Eventually, we had to settle for a cheaper, smaller but quieter room on the other side of the pool away from the river.

Great... but then the sink didn't work and the toilet wouldn't stop flushing and the electronic safe wouldn't unlock itself. Got that sorted out and by now half our Christmas day had vanished.

Headed into the historic town of Hoi An.

Tip for nations at war: Not bombing your enemy's towns can pay dividends in the long run. Hoi An shares this distinction with Kyoto, neither of which were bombed by the US out of concern for their cultural value. Shame Dresden didn't make the list but you can't be picky when you invade all of Western Europe I suppose.
Hoi An is a town with severe schizophrenia. It's first personality is that of a 19th century trading town which is exactly what it would look like and probably be if there weren't any tourists in it. It's second personality comes from the influence of tourists and give's the shells of its buildings contents at odds with its image. Beautiful buildings house backpacker cafes offering fruit shakes and an internet connection. Townhouses that once contained the families of traders in exotic silks have been gutted and filled with the less exotic silks and cheaper cottons of families now desperate to fill the rucksacks of each traveller with hastily tailored clothing.

Each day we went out into the town we had to run the gauntlet:

"Hello you want shoes?"
"Hello you want suit?"
"Hello you want laundry?"
"Hello you want motorbike?"
"Hello you want postcard?"
"Hello you want boat?"
"Hello you want food?"
"Hello you want push me in the river because I'm driving you up the wall!?"

Kind of detracted from the beauty and charm of the place really. Vietnam in a nutshell as our experience finally proved.

There's a roaring trade in silk lanterns here too.

We really splashed out for our Christmas lunch though. Finding a restaurant that was completely deserted we realised that this was because it was extortionate; they were offering a set lunch for $4 each. I know, we really do indulge ourselves but you can forgive us this once can't you - it was Christmas Day after all. We had free champagne to start with and a cocktail each to boot and the bill came just short of $10.

Spent the rest of the day exploring the town including getting fitted for some shoes.

If our lunch was sublime, our evening meal was ridiculous. From across the river it looked great. But you shouldn't trust anything that looks its best at night. What to us looked like a bustling balcony terrace covered in vines and romantic riverside tables turned out to be a shabby collection of tables with plastic tablecloths advertising drinking water under hanging gardens of assorted plastic plants. Unfortunately we'd already ordered and started eating by the time Sheena spotted the rat coming out from where they seemed to be preparing our food.

At least we had a quiet night's sleep though!

Sakura, our restaurant for Christmas lunch, by night.

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Sunday, December 24, 2006

Day 08 - Descent to Hoi An

At 5:30am we bundled into a waiting car in the chill morning air in Dalat bound for Nha Trang airport and our flight to Da Nang. In putting together the whole SEATour, we'd aimed to fly everywhere to make the most of the time. The only fly in that ointment had been getting from Dalat to Hoi An our next destination. There simply wasn't any way to go north from Dalat without using four wheels and no wings. For $68, we'd found a driver and a car. What we hadn't expected to be thrown in for this price was the incredible sunrise we got to boot.

At first it seemd the driver spoke about four words of English: yes, no, stop, go. He then rapidly expanded this limited repertoire adding toilet, smoke, sandwich and the phrase no problem so ubiquitous in Vietnam, we were beginning to wonder if the English had in fact borrowed it from Vietnamese.

Perhaps it was because everyone in the country guesses (spectacularly wrongly) that we've been married only four months. Perhaps it was simply that tourists he usually drives are heartbroken at leaving Dalat. Perhaps it was simply that he couldn't find his way out of town. But our driver went round the lake twice and meandered through some of the older parts of town before finally pulling up outside a bakery. He flashed his first word at us (sandwich) and motioned inside. We went in and got some delicious pastries (custard tarts!) and a filled baguette each for the ride.

Then we were off down an avenue littered with colonial villas, many inhabited now by Vietnamese I'm glad to say, and we began our five hour descent to Nha Trang where we were due to check in around 11am.

The sunrise consisted of the most amazing light we've seen in a long time. We stopped off repeatedly to photograph both the sun and its effects on the surroundings. That route is a photographer's goldmine at that time of morning.

Sheena fell asleep pretty soon after we hit the plains but that wasn't before our driver pulled over to have a pee. I joined him and afterwards, he asked me if I smoked. Thankful yet again that I didn't, he pulled a bong out of his boot, a stash out from under the boot floor and set about lighting up a nice strong puff of what I hoped was simply tobacco but might well have been something slightly more narcotic.

Whatever it was, our speed drastically improved. I'd been following the route with interest with my map and had estimated that we were behind schedule. But soon he took a shortcut and we sped off on a secondary road across some of the most interesting and untouched country there must be in this area. The villages were simply three or four huts around a courtyard surrounded by dense forest. But every now and then, a village appeared sharply at odds with this consisting of row upon row of identical concrete houses hardly any of which had open shutters. Some were definitely occupied. Many seemed empty. I couldn't help thinking that people had been resettled there under some grand socialist plan. It didn't seem to be working, whatever the ideal.

Having met the main road, we slowed in the mass of traffic heading up the long road linking Saigon and Hanoi. Things seemed to be going well until the driver suddenly took a strange turn south onto a heavily potholed road and then a huge dual carriageway rolling through landscape that was entirely sand. This wasn't right and we tried hard to let the driver know. We only had thirty minutes until we were due to check in. He was absolutely unmoveable though and ploughed on to what signs were telling us was Cam Ranh airport, at least forty kilometres south of Nha Trang where our flight departed from.

I have to be honest and say we were pretty panicky now. We seemed to be in a complete wilderness with a driver heading the opposite way from where we intended with absolutely no time to spare and a schedule that would punish mercilessly any missed flight or hijacking. Adamantly our driver kept on until we finally rolled across cracked tarmac and derelict billboards flanked by dead trees to Cam Ranh airport which seemed abandoned.

This was in fact because it had been. In April 1974, the fleeing USAnians, who'd built it to bring in a ton of America's finest young men, had left it for the North Vietnamese Army to overrun. It looked as if nothing much had been done to it since then.

The handwritten flight info board confirms that we are in the right place after all.

Inside, I quickly apologised to the driver. He was absolutely right. All flights for Nha Trang were now to go from Cam Ranh. How he knew this, we never found out. Why this was also remained a mystery. We were now early for our flight in fact which gave us time in the restaurant. Food wasn't that good though:

Our flight left a bit late and soon we were standing outside Da Nang airport looking for our invisible car from the Vinh Hung Resort in Hoi An, our next destination 25 km away. It was nowhere to be seen. An exorbitant phone call later, we established that they had no idea about sending us a car and we were constantly badgered by taxi drivers who treated us as carrion. Picking out the only one who was standing quietly leaving us alone, we got into his car which the others found hilarious and soon we were riding parallel with China Beach, the infamous R&R destination for American troops during the Vietnam War. I half expected to see Caucasian faces among the locals. They'd be about my age by now.

Turns out the hotel knew nothing about a car for us despite it being confirmed in an email I had a printout of. That was only the first of our hassles with this hotel but I'll keep all that for another day. We were shown to a fantastic room at one corner of the hotel overlooking the river and were left to freshen up. We instantly attacked the fruit on the coffee table to rid ourselves of the memory of yet more VNA pate!

We spent the evening having people gauge our vital statistics. Hoi An, for some reason, has become the tailoring capital of the land. Clothes, shoes, even furniture can be made to your design or any you happen to pick out of a catalogue. We were after clothes and spent a few hours choosing the designs, materials and getting measured up.

Back at the hotel, we'd been invited to the free Christmas Eve buffet. The food was great, the entertainment decidedly less so and this must have displeased the Powers that Be because a couple of hours into the evening it began to rain. We'd eaten enough by then and sauntered back to our room to try out our jacuzzi before a great night's sleep.

John tucks into noodles at our hotel's Christmas Eve buffet - just before it started raining.

The jacuzzi was an enormous corner bath. The two of us fitted into it with no problems. What we had problems fitting into it though was enough hot water. The immersion heater (for this is what the Vietnamese use to heat their water in every establishment in the country) was only big enough to fill the bath to approximately five inches deep and, crucially, to just short of the jets for the jacuzzi. Patently, it was useless and we were somewhat disappointed. Never mind, at least we had the luxury of a blissfully quiet night between the sheets of our huge comfy double bed...

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