Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Visiting Hoi An, Vietnam

Train workers take a break
Getting to Vietnam was more difficult than I had expected. Their visa policy required a specific start date and had to be purchased in advance. This is great for a tour group, but rather inconvenient for the Bohemian tourist. This provided few opportunities for creative adventuring.

I arrived in Ho Chi Min City in the early evening. The plan was to take the train to Hanoi. Years earlier, a traveling companion raved about the wonderful train ride, complete with real linen in the sleeper cars. I was all about sleeper cars so I booked a ticket the moment I arrived. The train departed two hours later so I saw little of city.

I settled back in my bunk, turned on the little light provided and read my pocket book. The train pulled out around 11pm and I was ready for a good sleep. The train stopped a few times during the night, but I was content to wait for sunrise before exploring the rest of the train.

In the morning, I wandered up through the train to see the other cars. The coach section looked quite comfortable, but the restaurant car was rather utilitarian.

The dining car.
The view out the window was interesting, but didn't change much; mile after mile of rich green rice farms. When we stopped later that morning, I gathered my belongings and made my way through the station. The train is some distance from Hoi An. Having no clue about local buses, I negotiated a taxi ride. We drove through the town then past beautiful China Beach before turning in to Hoi An.

Tranquil streets with ancient trees.
The town is a glorious throwback to a bygone age. The somewhat rundown colonial buildings have the traditional South East Asian pastel colors. I decided to go with the first appealing hotel I saw, the Huy Hoang Hotel.
One of the many lovely little hotels.

Silk lanterns in the market.
The town has numerous restaurants and little shops. Most of those commercial establishments cater to tourists, both foreign and domestic. There were many tempting options for eating, including one shop that served frothy draft beer. The shops carried the usual touristic kitsch, but there are also much more interesting options like artist galleries. I was most interested in the silk lamps. As tempting as they were, I could not risk damaging them during the rest of my trip and had to satisfy myself with a few photos.

The town is fascinating with it’s oil painting worthy views, its narrow streets and tiny building. In the middle of the day, the high overhead sun was too harsh for really good light. However, I found the river harbor had some very interesting from a photographic perspective. Numerous wooden boats were tied up or anchored. Only a few fishermen were at work and I took full advantage of the photo opportunities.

A fisherman attends to his nets.
Come evening, the lights come on in the town. There is little traffic, so walking in the street is usually an option. 
The streets are aglow with fairy lights from the many shops.
I paid another visit to the lantern shop to admire their colors as they lit up the street.

Beautiful lanterns light up a shop stall.
The next morning, I woke well before dawn. The streets were already busy with people going to work and preparing the market. My interest was seeing the beach. I had never seen the sun rise over the Pacific, so I hoped on my motor bike and headed east. I was not surprised at the amount of traffic on the road, but I was quite surprised to see so many people on the beach at that early hour.

When I parked the bike and walked through the trees to the water, I could see dozens of people walking and exercising on the shore. There were a few sitting down, waiting for the sun to rise. In the water, I could see a few people swimming! Understand that the sun had yet to rise at this point. The locals were certainly taking advantage of the beach.

Sunrise on Vietnam.
I had only a few hours remaining in Hoi An. I returned to the hotel and explored breakfast options. There were a few places catering to western tastes, so I made the most of them (food on the train is limited to rice, noodles and snacks). On the street, I met a guy on a motorcycle who offered to take me on a tour. I declined, but agreed to him taking me to the train station. 

It was a bit tricky getting the two of us on his motorbike with all my gear, but he balanced my backpack on the front and held on precariously in the back. We made a stop at the local marble quarry and another stop at China Beach.

I arrived at the station too early to board, so I wandered around the neighborhood. I bunch of locals offered me a beer as they relaxed on the sidewalk. The beer was as warm as the welcome I received. I did my best to converse with my new pals, but none of them understood English. As the train departure time drew near, I bid goodbye to my pals and got back to the train.

See more images here.

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