It seems like I had been planning a solo backpacking trip overseas for ages. In late May 2016, I finally took off for a trip through South East Asia like I had always wanted to. I was dismissive of all deterring arguments. I cared not what was happening to me or around me. This trip was all that mattered right now.
I took a tourist bus from Huế to Hội An, the charming tourist town a little south of Da Nang. Hội An had come heavily recommended by everyone who had been to Vietnam. I usually approach such tourist towns with a speculative heart but the many reasons of Hội An’s popularity would become evident to me over the next few days.
Charming Hội An
I forgot my hat in the bus when I got off at Hội An. 😕 This, I would remember only later in the night, though. I had not booked a place in Hội An because most of the online listings were somewhat expensive. I thought I would figure it out somehow when I got to Hội An. As I sat putting on my shoes at the bus stand (they make you take off your shoes in the buses), a nice woman walked up to me and offered me a room for 10 USD per night. I told her it was out of my budget and we finally settled at 6 USD a night for a “dorm room”. I rode with the woman and her little daughter on her bike to the home stay, Gom Do, which was near by. She was amused to learn that I was from India. She said she was told she looked somewhat Indian, which she did; her name was Yum.
The guest house was nice but the room was not really a “dorm room”. It was basically a family room with three beds that they were renting out on a sharing basis. Worked for me. I was the first one in the room. There was also a catalogue for tours that I did not intend to take. After I had settled down and was preparing to go out to explore the city, they brought in another taveller. This was Lisa, a European who lived in Argentina and was somewhat surprised at finding the “dorm room” not quite as she had expected. She was somewhat uncomfortable with the arrangement and took some time to think through the idea. Since I was leaving, we just decided on the beds, protocol for leaving the keys, etc.
I got a lift from one of the guest house staff on the way to the old town. I asked him to drop me at a nice place to eat and he left me at a street-side place that served Mì Quảng, a Hội An specialty. It was pretty nice.
Hội An food tour begins with a Mì Quảng
I walked to the old town that was up ahead. The sun had set and the lights had come up. There were the famous tailor shops everywhere. Hội An’s specialty was very evident.
The ancient city was lively with lots of lights and tourists. There were Chinese lanterns hanging all around and they looked beautiful in the narrow lanes with old buildings. There were a lot of cafes and restaurants and shops selling all kinds of interesting things like coffee, posters, coasters, souvenirs, etc. The ancient city has some kind of a ticket for entry which covers most of the temples and other sights in the area. I did not know about it so I just walked in. There was no one checking the ticket, in fact it would have been quite a task with so many tourists! I don’t think there is a point of taking the ticket at all unless you want to look at the temples and all the buildings with classic architecture.
Charming ancient city
I crossed the river on a crowded and lit up bridge. The other side had a street market and drinking holes as well. I was handed a flier for a free drink at a Monkey Bar. It was not very happening when I crossed it so I did not go in. There were many more bars and pubs, all of which were just beginning to see business for the night. I was not in the mood for a drink anyway so I contented myself with walking along the river. The whole place was really lively. There were people playing games and some Vietnamese street performances. There were vendors selling food items and souvenirs. Lots of beautiful Chinese lanterns as well.
I walked across the small island and sat along the Thu Bồn river on the other side. This place was quieter and I got a Ca Phe Sua Da while I wrote a little in my notebook. Eventually I started walking back. The market was still in full swing and everyone was enjoying their night. I saw the famous Japanese Bridge on the way; it was overflowing with selfie clicking tourists but pretty nonetheless.
Simply walking around is the thing to do in this town. I did that for a while but I was somewhat tired tonight, so I returned to the room and called it an early night.
An Bang Beach
I woke up and had a simple breakfast at the guest house. I got to meet some interesting people at the table. There were two Chileans, Nidia and Khaviet, who were travelling together. They had been in New Zealand before this and had been away from home for a long time now. There was also a French woman in her middle ages who ran a guest house in Morocco. She had some interesting stories to tell about the Arab people and the business she was trying to set up in Cambodia.
I decided to go to the beach after the breakfast. Lisa was going out to meet her friends. I decided to walk the 5 odd kilometers to An Bang beach. Nidia and Khaviet crossed me on their bikes just outside the town. I waved them goodbye and told them I might see them at the beach. The town had ended quite abruptly and the fields had replaced the buildings. This level of planning seems uncomfortably unnatural to me. There was a pretty canal running along the country road. I felt like jumping into the water to seek respite from the harsh sun. I was really missing my hat. 😫
The road led to the main highway and I hastened to the beach. There were quite a few tourists going to or coming back from the beach on their bicycles. I could see just one man walking ahead of me. We caught up with each other and exchanged hellos right before the beach. He asked me where I was from and the conversation started thus. This was Robert from Malta. I blurted the first thing that came to my mind when he told me his country.
“You know about that one, eh?" he laughed.
I knew that one by heart but I had never known that Malta was a small island country off the coast of Italy. We stuck together as we searched for a place on the crowded beach. The beach was much more beautiful than I had expected. We went past the beach chairs being sold and found a shaded spot under some plants to keep our bags in. The sun was blazing hot and the sea felt nice and pleasant.
Robert and I talked about a lot of things. He was an electrical engineer and was working for a company in London that made embedded products. He wanted to learn programming. He even told me they were looking for someone who coded in C and I could apply if I was interested. He compared how the cultures of London and Malta were different. We talked about food, Hindu religion, Shiva as a cool god, India for tourists and many more random topics.
Clicking in the sea
We got out of the water after having spent more than an hour in it. I had no idea that the sun can burn your skin even when you are submerged in water. Well, now I know. We decided to grab something to eat and a beer in one of the restaurants around the beach. I tried the Banh Vac, also known as the white rose dumpling. It was delicious but not very filling, so I ordered a Cao Lau as well, another Hội An specialty. Robert tried a grilled fish which was delicious and somewhat inexpensive.
We drank a couple of beers and talked some more. The brexit result had just come out and Robert was a bit bummed as to what would happen to his employment terms. We speculated some and then simply shrugged our shoulders. Robert was planning to go back into the sea after the lunch but I had had enough. I bid him goodbye and headed back to the room in the blazing sun.
Crossing farms in the blazing sun
Lessons in Partying
There was a new guy in the room. This was Lisa’s Mexican friend, Juan. He was a cool guy and liked talking. We talked a bit about how every place has it’s own peculiarities. He lives in Mexico City and travels 20 kms to work everyday, which takes him 2.5 hours one way. I cannot imagine spending 5 hours in commute every single day! Lisa and Juan were heading out to meet friends and even I grabbed my bag and thought of heading to the old town to eat something more and then check out the pub the Chileans had told me about over breakfast that morning. But Yum caught me on the way out and told me about the “family dinner” that they were having at the guest house that night. Lisa and Juan had plans but they insisted that I say a yes, and so I did! There was just an hour to go for dinner time, so I decided to hit a cafe nearby. I killed the hour writing and chatting with a 4 year old who was speaking randomly in English. 😂
I returned to the guest house by 7 and helped Yum set the dinner table. There were more people in the guest house than what I had expected. There were two Dutch Girls (Hannah and Anna Marie), two Dutch Guys (Shtein and Khaish), two Irish guys (Pierce and Ronan) and the Chileans from the morning. And then there was me, the only person not traveling with a mate. Yum and some other Vietnamese staff joined us and we ate some delicious home made food. We talked a lot and then Shtein brought out his guitar. He played really good and so we asked for some beers and sang lots of songs. They wanted to hear a Hindi song, so I tried the first one that comes to my mind when a guitar is around - Dooba Dooba. Shtein managed to get the chords right and we somehow managed the song. 🎸
We partied till 10 in the guest house; we had to end early because it was a home stay in the middle of a residential area. But we decided to continue the party in a pub. We went to the same one that I had got a flier for the previous day - Funky Monkey. All, except the Chileans who had left when the jamming had started, stuffed themselves in a taxi and left for the old town.
Funky Monkey was good. It was not all that crowded and you could put on your own songs, which the Dutch people did. We drank and danced. The Dutch really know how to let their hair down. They are not bothered by how they are dancing or what steps look “cool”. They taught me some funny steps which I probably do not remember anymore; we smoked a hookah; drank rum and coke and were given 1+1. It turned out to be much more fun than I had thought it would be.
We had to stop around 12 though when the pub closed its doors. The Dutch guys were supposed to drive to Huế in the morning so we said goodbye to them. Khaish, who looks weirdly similar to Zlatan Ibrahimovich, was pretty drunk and gaily kissed me goodbye. He told me something about “no borders” that I wanted to remember but cannot. However, the party had not ended yet for the rest of us. A man roped us in for another pub. He arranged motorbike drops to this place and we were probably the only ones in this pub.
Everything was hazy by now 😝
There was a pool table and we started playing. Everyone was drunk and the Irish were hitting on the Dutch. Ronen took me aside and told me he had a chance with the blonde one who I was playing a match with. I happily stepped aside and let him play to which he told me I was his new favourite mate. 😂 I played with the bartender after they finished. She beat me two games in a row though they were extremely close. I bought her a drink to show my appreciation for beating a drunken me. I played a little foosball with Ronen and then we left for the guest house. 3 motorbikes. I was with a ladyboy I think but people’s genders or sexualities do not really make me uncomfortable. We got to the guest house and the man who was the ringleader wanted 100k per bike! I handed a 20k bill for mine and told him that I wasn’t drunk enough to pay any more.
Lisa was on the top of the gate when we reached. She and Juan had reached just then as well and had found the gate locked. I showed them the key which was kept where we had discussed with the guest house owners and we laughed about it a bit. Everyone sat around and talked in hushed tones once we were all in. I was decently drunk so I left for the room and sat talking to Juan inside. He had travelled to Nepal as well - Kathmandu and Everest base camp. Somehow the topic of my marriage came up again and I explained it to him as I had done to so many already. He kept laughing throughout. 😐 My head was spinning and I passed out soon after. It must have been 4 in the morning.
A Day in Da Nang
I woke up around noon next day with a headache and a terrible hangover. My room mates had a good laugh about it when they came back from the beach. I decided to cure my condition by taking a walk to find some food. I walked till Madame Khanh, a small place which is famous for it’s Bánh Mì. Hội An has the best Bánh Mìs in Vietnam and Madame Khanh does a really good one. She is an old lady who is as much of a tourist attraction herself as her sandwiches. One of her sandwich and a Ca Phe Sua Da eased my hangover by various degrees.
Cure for a hangover
I had just walked into the ancient town when I got Daniel’s ping on my phone. He and his friend were planning to catch a Vietnamese League football match in Da Nanag. He asked if I was interested and I said I was. I asked him when the match was. It was at 5 PM that evening! I checked the time; 2 PM. I rushed back to the local bus stand, which was a little before the guest house I was putting up in. I took the shortest route shown by Google Maps and in keeping with shortest routes, this one went through some quaint parts of the town. A real old town with old buildings and no tickets. There were some farms as well and at the end of the road, the bus stand.
Farms en route to the bus stand
There was a bus waiting when I got to the stand. I got in and the bus started in 15 minutes or so. It took the bus 40 minutes to get to Da Nang. This was the Bus Number 1 that is so notorious all over the online forms for overcharging foreigners. I don’t think the westerners get the concept of cheap bus travel. The ticket is for the passenger only. Any considerable luggage fetches an extra price, both, from foreigners as well as locals. I paid the usual 20 kVND and faced no problems whatsoever.
At Da Nang I got off a little before the stadium to try a few ATMs before walking to the stadium. I met up with Daniel and his friend, Andy, next to the stadium. They had already bought their tickets and I got mine as well. The tickets were being sold in black all over the place with the policemen standing in indifference. I got a 25k ticket for 30k; in 90 INR I had got the best tier ticket. 😄 This was one of the cheapest tickets I have ever purchased!
Chi Lang Stadium
There was still time for the match so we sat drinking beer in a shop right opposite to the entrance. There was a brief and heavy rain which let up just in time for the match. We talked about the brexit mostly. These guys, both British, thought it was a stupid decision for the UK to exit the EU. There might be some good reasons to exit the EU but this decision was made for all the wrong ones. Also, the referendum had shown that the English were the only ones who wanted to exit. The Scots and Irish had wanted to remain in the EU and now there was a possibility of them exiting the UK to remain in the EU. Otherwise there needed to be a checkpoint between Ireland and Northern Ireland which would strain the peace treaty between the nations. They said that the trade might suffer as well. I pointed out that there were other nations that were not a part of EU but had trade agreements with them; Switzerland for example. But Switzerland was not a good place for working class people, they explained. We discussed implications like lack of skilled workers, the problem with restricted movement, lack of environmental and economic regulations. There were many things that they found bothering and this was one decision that would probably not be reversed till it was too late.
When it was time, we picked up some 10k Bánh Mìs and went into the stadium. There was not a huge crowd but the stadium had a considerable audience. The seats were alright and we had a nice view of the entire ground. Da Nang in orange was playing Hải Phòng in white. Da Nang was third in the V.League table and Hải Phòng were the current leaders. The match had it’s thrill. They played the Vietnamese national anthem at the beginning of the match. People stood up and continued doing whatever it was that they were doing; smoking a cigarette, or texting; I continued eating my sandwich.
The match itself was quite interesting. The quality of football was much better than I had been expecting. There were a few good moves. Jersey number 99 of Da Nang scored twice and Hải Phòng lost their momentum. One of the Hải Phòng player was shown a red card as well. The match was an enjoyable experience; one that I would repeat gladly.
We split up after the match. The guys were staying in Lang Co which was a little north of Da Nang and looked pretty in the pictures. Daniel told me to hit him up if I was ever returning to Saigon. I rushed to see if I could still find a bus. It was already 7 PM. The buses stop around 6 PM apparently. I considered hitchhiking but how was I to know which car or bike was heading to Hội An? I was certainly not getting a 300k taxi. I decided to stay in Da Nang and hop cafes and watch the Euro matches before taking an early bus out to Hội An. There was time for the matches to start so I went to the riverside and walked along the promenade. Da Nang is one of the prettiest cities I have ever seen. I really liked the lights and the lack of any kind of rush that one sees in a city so big.
Bright lights, big city!
I took some photos and then dived into the maze of roads again. I found a place to eat and got some Pho for dinner. The match had started by the time I ended my dinner and I decided to find a cafe to sit and enjoy the match in. This turned out to be quite a challenge. The street-side cafes that are omnipresent elsewhere in Vietnam seemed to be a rarity in Da Nang (at least in the part of the city I was in). I had to walk all the way back to the stadium to find a place and I missed the first 25 minutes consequently. Even this cafe was going to close at 10 PM. So much for my cafe hopping plans!
As the match went into overtime, I decided to check out a hostel nearby. This one was offering me a free drop to Hội An in the morning. I got to Funtastic Hostel and talked to the manager over phone since the guy at the reception did not speak English. I explained the situation to him telling him that I wanted to spend the night but did not have my passport on me. I could mail him a scanned copy though, which I did and we decided on a price close to agoda’s.
Then I sat in the common room watching the rest of the matches while the staff snored away next to me. I was the only one up to watch football this late in the night. After the matches I went to my bed only to find it occupied by someone. I woke up the staff to ask him if there was another bed I could sleep in but he did not understand my request. He went into the room, switched on the lights and started creating a havoc that would have woken everyone up. I told him to quit it and that I would sleep in the common room instead.
I slept for the few hours before the hostel woke up. I was somewhat frustrated with the night’s mix up and the unapologetic nature of the manager and staff in the morning. It is at times like these that I regret not having booked through agoda or some place where I could share my experience with a bad review. Anyway, I availed the excuse for a free breakfast and took the drop to Hội An.
Coffee and Memories
There was just another girl from this hostel. She was one of the rare Germans who do not have a thick accent. The van stopped at the beach-side franchise of the same hostel and loads of people got in. There were three groups, out of which two were from Canada. They got talking and the rest got listening. One was a couple of law students. The girl, who was doing most of the talking, was English by her accent, had been in Canada for 5 years and “never want[ed] to leave!”. Her voice was overspilling with the arrogance that I find utmost irritating. She was full of despise for the people of China and Vietnam. The other group was of two guys, one of whom did most of the talking. He was studying in Canada as well. These are the kind of people who are surprised and irritated at finding 20 people in a line at Shanghai airport. I pray they never come to India. A dialogue went as follows.
“There were 20 people waiting and those guys did not open another security post!” 20? Really?
“That’s why we always take the express check-ins.” Fuck your money! Really!
For some reason this irritated me to no end. It was economic casteism, at it’s best, being paraded in front of me. I could have expressed my disdain but I reasoned that it would have been pointless to educate their elite western ego. I held my tongue and suffered the rest of the journey, which fortunately, was not long.
I took a drop close to the hostel. As I walked the rest of the way, a few Vietnamese children started an impromptu conversation with me. They were from a province nearby and were here on vacation. Their guardian stood smiling a few steps behind as I exchanged names and shook hands with the children. I adore such confidence in kids so young, mostly because I remember having very little at their age. I still suffer from lack of confidence when it comes to talking to people at random but I am working on it.
When I got to the guest house, I found that Lisa had left and Juan was highly amused as to where I had been missing all night. Yum told me later that he had expressed concern to her as well. Good man. 😊 I apologised and reiterated my story for his benefit. He “pfft"ed as he usually did and laughed it off. Then he left for the beach and I for the old town. I wandered around hunting for a good deal for a bus ticket to my next destination. Nothing felt right. I wound up on the riverside road in the old town and the music in one of the cafes caught my attention. Unlike the others, no one was calling out to me from inside. I walked up to take a look at the menu before the woman inside took notice of me and asked me to come in. There was just another old man sitting there who turned out to be the owner of the cafe. I ordered a Ca Phe Sua Da and sat listening to old French ballads, watching the people pass by on the road in front and the river beyond. It was quite beautiful.
The old man, Mr. Kim, eventually asked me where I was from. He smiled when I told him I was from India and then produced a register at a page where another Indian had written something. I could not read since it was in Malayalam (I am guessing since the man had mentioned Kerala in his signature). Then I flipped through the pages and read random memories from people who had visited this cafe over time. The coffee and the memories registered in these pages complimented each other wonderfully.
A perfect mix
After a bit I started working on my laptop and ordered something to eat. A younger man came in and started playing Chinese Chess with Mr. Kim. The game seemed pretty cool and Mr. Kim was killing his opponent. I looked around at the obviously photoshopped images of his younger self with some French men. The woman put a register in front of me when I finished my meal. These guys had a very unique way of keeping reviews. In a world where tripadvisor was the word of truth, and this is specially true for Hội An where every cafe flashes it’s tripadvisor rating to draw customers in, this cafe was doing it in the old school way. I wrote my review and ordered another coffee as a new round of Chinese Chess started at Cafe Des Amis.
There were more people who were coming in and the woman was growing impatient with me. The cafes in Hội An are somewhat weird. They are not the usual cafes where you can sit and work at leisure. There seems to be a pressure to either give a constant business or be gone. Anyway, I left after the coffee and walked back to the hostel while booking a bus ticket en route. I spent some time in the guest house working on a blog post. Juan came in from the beach and was planning to go meet some of his Spanish friends in the old town. I headed out for some Pho and then caught a Euro match in the town’s Man U Cafe. I think they have one of those in every village. 😂 I went back to the room and slept early to make up for last night’s misadventure.
I woke up the next day and watched the Copa finals with Juan. The referee played spoilsport and handed out two unnecessary reds. It did not seem like a football match anymore. Everyone ran around tired, missing passes and shots. It was a pathetic final, undeserving of the amazing competition that the Copa had been thus far. The match went into penalties. The big names missed their chances and Chile won on penalties for the second year running against the same opponent. Messi announced his retirement from international football.
I had breakfast in the guest house and talked to Yum a bit about tourism in Hội An. Incredibly, there was a time when tourists were not able to find places to stay in Hội An. The government had then started encouraging home stays. Anyway, I checked out and payed the bill which was not as hefty as I was expecting. I saw a small kitten near the reception while I was walking out. It was so little that it was difficult to spot on the floor!
Unfortunately I am not a cat person
I dropped my bag at the Sinh Tourist office and went to look for a cafe to sit and work in. I sat in a large and spacious one with lots of open green space. Despite there being no customers around, I was rushed here as well. I walked out after my second coffee because my laptop was running out of battery and there was no power point to be seen. I walked back to the bus company office and ran into Juan right in front of it. He was also leaving the city today and had his bus out later that evening. He, however, had used his time better to do some sightseeing in the old town. He showed me some pictures he had taken and then we said goodbye once more. I sat in another cafe to charge my laptop, eat some noodles and drink a strange chilli-mango smoothie.
It was eventually time to cramp myself up in another bus. I don’t know how people taller than me, and there are plenty of them, travel in these things. I slept, worked and watched football through the night as the bus made it’s way southward to Nha Trang.
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Find the previous posts in this series here.
And here is the complete album of the Hội An leg of the trip.