Hoi An / Da Nang are our final stops in Vietnam and close out Year 2 of our RTW journey. We have been traveling so long when I call my parents, they no longer ask how are you, they ask where are you?
HOI AN –
Hoi An is one my personal favorite cities to visit in Vietnam because for me it’s a quintuple threat – it’s photogenic (referred to as the Venice of Asia), it’s a beach town (I love the beach), it’s romantic (I’m romantic), the food is phenomenal (I love to eat) and you can get custom made clothing and suits here (this I could care less). What’s not to love? Ok, no dusty gray customized suits for BFD, but it’s the best place to get custom made suits if you are still a working stiff and have not already dropped out of society.
Hoi An sure has grown over the years from our last visit 20 years ago. It has gotten so popular over the years, they enacted a $5 admission charge to enter this charming UNESCO World Heritage Old Town and is valid for an entire stay. When the fee was first put into place, many tourists beefed about this new entrance fee especially if you just wanted to take a stroll along the town’s streets or go to restaurants and bars and not go sightseeing. It appears the fee rules have been loosened and you really only need to pay this new entrance fee if you want to visit the historical sights in the Old Town. I had always loved Hoi An because, it seemed genuine — a “real” village, well-preserved. When you start charging admission fees, you put yourself in the same category as Disneyworld, albeit on a smaller scale. People love Disneyworld, but they go there to entertain themselves and their kids, not for a sense of authenticity. I was definitely on the fence whether to ante up but similar to the entrance fee to National Parks, as long as the moolah is used to preserve the area and keep it righteous, I am down.
The Positives – The fee proceeds are supposed to be reinvested in the old town, paying for renovations, upkeep, staff and the few families who actually still live there and open their ancient houses for viewing. The fee also pays for the Old Town evening street entertainment which helps keep the tradition alive in this unique little town.
The Negatives – Fortunately, we visited during low season as I have heard that the Old Town during the high season resembles a crowded Dineyland-like atmosphere. We definitely would have taken a pass on the town had it not been low season.
What I loved most about walking around the Old Town area at night is they close all the roads to cars and motorbikes. Only bicycles and cyclos are permitted which made it so much more relaxing to stroll around. The town really lights up at nighttime with colored lanterns and the entire area turns into a festival like atmosphere with local families and children indulging in the fun. What I also love about many Asian towns is the ubiquitous evening outdoor gatherings where everyone interacts with each other. It just seems like a much healthier alternative than being holed up in the house watching tv and playing with the internet like back at home.
Hoi An is home to arguably the most tasty Bahn Mi sandwiches in all of Vietnam. The battle for top honors was between Madam Khanh (aka “The Bahn Mi Queen”) and Bahn Mi Phuong, the highly touted Anthony Bourdain place. Of course, our mission was to pick a winner from our Bahn Mi throwdown. These sandwiches prepared at streetside stalls are the deal of the century costing about a buck a pop. I can report both Bahn Mi joints were juicy, tasty and stuffed with good things. In my opinion, with any sandwich, the bread is ‘The’ absolute key in the overall quality of any sandwich. You can put dog shit between a superior quality baguette and even a shit sandwich would taste great on a Vietnamese baguette. I am a bit of a bread connoisseur and can attest to the fact that they know what they are doing in Vietnam when it comes to their freshly baked baguettes. A few tips…..my little secret is to get the egg added to the Bahn Mi, which definitely kicks it up a notch. Also, do not hesitate when ordering, or a local will rightfully jump right in front of you for being an amateur and holding up the cue.
The elder, 80 year old Madam Khanh, (aka “The Queen of Bahn Mi’s”) was ‘in the house’ but unfortunately, did not make our Bahn Mi sandwich. I was told The Queen was upstairs resting in her house right above the shop. However, her well trained daughter/princess put together solid sandwiches for us. We went back to the Queen’s place a few days later to cap off our doubleheader and we were so excited to see the actual “Queen” on duty making the Bahn Mi sandwiches (check out the video of the Queen herself below). I can report, The Queen’s sandwich actually tasted even better than her daughters version. The Queen apparently has mastered, thru many more years of experience, the perfect balance of the eleven (11) ingredients. Every Bahn Mi stand uses slightly different fillings and I was able to dig deep and discover the following was in The Queens sandwich: Pâté, pork char siu, sausage, fried egg, homemade pickles, papaya, carrots, parsley, chili sauce, soy sauce, and her secret sauce. So, who was the Bahn Mi winner? Media darling, Anthony Bourdain’s place was excellent but he can kiss my ass as I preferred the under the radar and less publicized, Madam Khanh’s stand. Not only does “The Queen” make the best Bahn Mi sandwich in Hoi An, I will go on record and say she makes the best sandwich in all of Vietnam.
The other big Hoi An Specialty Dish is Cao lầu which is only found in the town of Hoi An. The dish cannot be replicated outside of the town because the water used in the dish must be drawn from a well in the nearby Ba Le well (so they say). The noodles have a unique taste and texture which is achieved by using special water from the well. Cao Lau comprises of signature cao lầu noodles, slices of barbecue pork, pork crackling, bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs, it is then finished with a spoonful of stock. Good shit.
We would not have been happy if we elected to stay in the heart of the Old Town with the majority of tourists. Just like everything else from the past, places always seemed better back in the day and this definitely applies to the Old Town of Hoi An. It used to be such a cool little sleepy town to hang out in all day. A great town to get lost in its simple village lifestyle. Old Town is alot more built up nowadays and it appeared as though the city authorities mission was to transform many of the cool old residential buildings into restaurants and shops. This has effectively brought in a flood of Chinese tourists and has turned the Old Town into a quaint outdoor shopping mall. The area still has a great deal of charm and it is best to visit at night when they shut down traffic to cars and motorbikes. It has gotten a bit crowded in the day time with motorbikes zipping around but at night time you can drift around without worrying about being plowed down by a motorbike.
It is definitely worth including Hoi An on any Vietnam itinerary and is worthy of an extended, longer term stay if you make the right moves. The best decision we made was selecting our place to shack up away from super touristy, Old Town of Hoi An. We found a great small boutique resort on the ricefields in a local village perfectly situated between the Old Town and the Beach. By picking this area, it enabled us to ride our bicycles between the beach and the town and to comfortably hunker down for ten (10) nights among the locals, water buffaloes and away from the packs of tourists. We had originally planned 3 nights but we got so comfortable in the relaxed lifestyle, we extended our stay for another 3 nights and then extended it again for another 4 nights. A solid 10 days of eating some of the best food in all of Vietnam and mingling with the friendly laid back locals. The guesthouse we stayed in provided free bicycles which we used to take daily bike rides around the adjacent An My Village which is filled with scenic ricefields .
The days were scorching hot so we happily spent everyday at the beach getting cheap massages @$7 per hr. and cooling out on the beach. The most popular beach with the most action is An Bang Beach which had sort of a bohemian vibe. We ate all our lunches at the comfy and relaxed Deckhouse right on the beach. A full lunch along with use of their beach loungers/umbrellas set up on the beach in front of the restaurant cost us about $25 for the two of us and that covered the entire day. A setup like this at a similar beach club type atmosphere at home would cost 5-10X this amount….easily. Just another example of the great value for our money in Vietnam. After a few days at An Bang Beach, we discovered a quieter and more laid back beach scene about 1/2 mile south at Hidden Beach. This became our preferred, ‘go to’ beach as we enjoyed the more mellow scene here.
Da NANG –
The growth in Da Nang since my last visit 15 years ago was quite impressive and going forward, I fully expect the city to transform into a world class beach destination. You may even know this beachfront area I am referring to, also known as China Beach from the movie Apocalypse Now. Well, instead of the lovely smell of Napalm in the morning, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore would now be smelling big time construction projects.
Massive beachfront resorts, luxury condo developments and golf courses are in the works. If developed properly, Da Nang has a real potential, within the next 15 years, to turn into one of the top resort areas in all of Southeast Asia. I do not think there are any major casino operators in Vietnam as of yet, but Da Nang has all the markings of a potential future big time casino destination. Da Nang is blessed with a massive amount of untouched beachfront property ripe for development. With all this land and its wide sweeping streets, it gives the city a spacious feeling and should prevent the city from turning into a congested overbuilt city like Miami. If I had to guess, I am sure a ton of Chinese money is flowing into this area for construction projects. There is just so much potential here and time will tell if they get it right. Da Nang is only a 30 minute drive north of the quaint Hoi An which just adds to the appeal of the area.
We had planned to visit the ancient city of Hue and and the beach area of Nha Trang but we were so comfortable and entrenched in the Hoi An lifestyle that we bagged them. We had already been to both of these place on our previous trip to Vietnam, so we were ok with passing them up on this go around in lieu of an extended more meaningful stint in Hoi An. We have been adhering to our new philosophy of slower travel, which allows us more time in each location to better absorb each place and prevent travel burnout. We plan a return to Vietnam in October and will probably revisit some places we missed at that time.
Restaurants – The Green Mango, Miss Ly Caffe 22, Bale Well, Vy’s Market Restaurant, Madam Khanh, Bahn Mi Phuong, Canh Buon Trang, So Hoian, Hidden Beachside Restaurants, Deckhouse, Hoi An Chic Resort
LOOSE STOOLS INDEX – 9
I threw it all down and Big Doug’s digestive tract held up just fine. Happily, it has been clear sailing throughout Vietnam. I have decisively won the war our country failed to do.
THRU THE BINOCS –
Vietnam is one of the most incredible countries I have visited. The sheer vibrant chaos of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City blew me away. We have visited most of the other major SE Asian countries over the past 2 years and I would have to say Vietnam has the most eye opening action. There exists something on every corner that will make you say, WTF. We were really able to sink our teeth into all the cities & towns that we visited because we have the luxury to travel with no time constraints, unlike a normal vacation where you would have to squeeze in as much as possible during a short period of time. We moved at a relaxed pace without the pressure of having to frenetically rush to see all the highlights. This is another major benefit of slow travel.
If I’ve learned anything about Vietnam, it’s that the Vietnamese have very structured ways of doing things that aren’t always obvious to you – even when it seems like you’ve been thrown into utter chaos, things always seem to work out seamlessly in the end. However, one thing Vietnam teaches is patience. The last time I visited Vietnam over 20 years ago, I remembered there was so much bureaucracy when trying to get any business done. So, what sort of business could us unemployed wandering nomads possibly have? I am talking getting visas, organizing/booking onward travel, dealing with banks and learning defensive steps to prevent loose stools. Nowadays, the bureaucracy in Vietnam still exists but on a much smaller scale than in the past.
Random Vietnam Musings –
The Vietnamese take first prize as the best scam artists. They are sneaky and slick. Congrats to them for taking top honors in all of Southeast Asia.
The Vietnamese food was the best of any SE Asian country. If you want to lose weight, go to Vietnam. Not because the food is bad. The Vietnamese cook with only healthy fresh ingredients from the ground and no salt/oils added.
The Vietnamese language is tonal. They cannot pronounce ‘Doug’. For simplicity purposes, I went by my new Vietnamese name, DAT. Why Dat? Cause about a 1/4 of the male population go by the name of Dat.
The Vietnamese people have no sweat glands. It is hot as shit here, I mean scorching hot as shit. You will not see a bead of sweat on their faces despite the fact they wear long pants, long sleeve shirts and facemasks.
The Vietnamese woman all have the same exact sized boobs. No boob jobs in Vietnam.
The older Vietnamese woman all have great skin texture. The botox/facelift craze has not arrived in Vietnam. The secret? You will never find a Vietnamese woman basking in the sun.
The Vietnamese people are experts at extracting Dong from you. Hold onto your Dong! The currency, not your Johnson.
The Vietnamese people in the service industry, really any industry of selling you crap have the friendliest smiling faces in all of Asia. Those not in these industries can be ruthless little shits.
The Vietnamese have a shady dual pricing structure. Everything in Vietnam has two (2) prices – the local price and the foreigner price. In some cases, the separate menu for locals even has different items than the english foreigner menu.
The Vietnamese know how to pile the most amount of people/stuff on one single motorbike than in any Asian country. I have seen a family of five and their dog pile onto one motorbike. Some family members are even napping on the speeding motorbike.
The Vietnamese do not eat a traditional breakfast. No dairy in Vietnam. Get used to eating hot noodle soup for breakfast.
The Vietnamese still make use of copy machine stores in towns. Not sure what they are photocopying but I see many Vietnamese still love to photocopy shit. Apparently they have not cozzied up to .PDF files.
The Vietnamese still use carbon paper. Purchase something in a store, order food in a restaurant, get your hotel bill upon checkout. Carbon paper will be used to generate the customer receipt.
The Vietnamese love to sleep on the job. It is not unusual having to wake up the sales clerk sprawled out on the floor in a fetal position to get their attention.
All this being said, we absolutely loved Vietnam. It is now onto our favorite place on earth……MAUI (with a brief stint in Kailua/Lanikai, Oahu). We will use our month in Maui to get some R & R and regroup. Basically, just getting into supreme chill mode prior to embarking on Year 3 of our RTW.