3. Full moon over Hoi An

26.07.2015 – 31.07.2015

The plane arrived over an hour later than expected in Danang. Without any immigration I headed straight to the baggage claim area – and instead of waiting at a queue for immigration I waited for my bag instead. Even though it is an international airport, Danang airport is not too big, so the wait for the bags was not too long.

Thankfully I was able to let my homestay know about the delay, so my driver was there when I arrived. I must admit it is nice to walk into the arrival hall and seeing my name on the sign. No need to look for taxis and the hassle, or looking for the bus. I paid $14, which is not bad for a 40 minute drive. There was no traffic and soon we were on a familiar looking road along the coast towards Hoi An. I must admit, I had a big smile in my face when I saw green rice paddies left and right along the road. For me it is a great sight.

Around 17:00 I was finally at my homestay. I was greeted by a new ‘receptionist’ with the usual bananas and a fruit juice. But other than having a quick chat with a couple from England staying at homestay here there was no time, as I was ushered towards two taxis waiting in front of the homestay – I didn’t even had the chance to bring my bag to the room. Instead I was waiting for a third taxi (just for me) to arrive and bringing me to Cam Nam island, where all guests of the homestay were invited for a wee dinner. What a nice start of my stay. The restaurant was located next to the big river (not the small one passing along the Ancient Town), and it was a nice setting to sit down, chatting to the other guests, and enjoying a small sample of local food, including a minced meat mix you put on crispy rice paper. I was also be able to enjoy my first cold Larue beer, which went down nicely after such a long time.

After the nice dinner we all walked back to the Ancient Town, accompanied by some light rain. I haven’t been on that island, so it was nice to see a bit of it. From the car steel bridge you also get a nice view towards the Ancient Town.
You instantly realised how much busier the Ancient Town got, especially the little square. As last time the Vietnamese Bingo with singing took place again – and attracted quite the crowd.
Before enjoying a few drinks though I headed back to the homestay to finally get my bags in the room. But firstly I was greeted by the whole family when I got through the door. Nhung was back of the wedding, and it was nice to see her, her husband and younger son again. For some reason they all remembered me – obviously because I am such a nice guy, at least I hope so. But this warm welcome, which I experienced here during Christmas as well, was the reason I returned here, and would not consider any other accommodation in Hoi An.

Unfortunately the single room was booked, so I got a double room on the top floor with shared bathroom and terrace. Room was once again nicely decorated, comfy and clean.

The main reason to return to Hoi An was to explore the dive sites in the area. I couldn’t stop watching the video played in the Dive Bar during my last stay, so I definitely wanted to try it. So before my trip I completed my Open Water course, and was ready for some diving.  I therefore split my stay in Hoi An in two bits. After one night I was heading out to Cham island for an overnight stay, before returning to Hoi An for two more nights).

 

So I headed to the Dive Bar to pay for the dive trip, and hopefully to catch up with JG, the French guy I met there during Christmas. Unfortunately he was ill while I was in Hoi An, and didn’t see him again.
Instead I met Natasha, one of the dive masters. It was nice to meet one of the diver masters joining the trip, and getting a bit more information about the whole trip. In addition I was lucky enough to listen to the same French singer who was there for Christmas Eve. So I stayed there for more than just 1 beer, and enjoyed the chat and music.

I left a bit later than expected, so my plan to have one of the great little DYI rolls with barbequed meat offered at the corner was thwarted, as they closed already. Instead I headed to one of the bars on the other side of the river, who still offered Bia Hoi for 5,000 Dong and had the Hoi An speciality White Roses. Beer and food was good, and it was then time to head to my room to pack my little bag, and get some sleep before heading out the next day.

 

The following day I was able to have Cao Lai for breakfast again. This is still one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes, and Nhung prepares a perfect version of it.
Thankfully I was able to leave my main bag behind, and with my day pack I was off to my dive trip – which will be covered in the next entry.

 

I arrived back from my dive trip on Tuesday late afternoon. Expecting to get the same room again, Nhung admitted upon arrival that the room wasn’t any longer available and if it was ok to stay in the double deluxe room – for $6 more a night. It was not planned, but the room was worth the extra money as it was very spacious and with a nice bathroom. And it below the top floor – so I had to deal with less stairs.

Room sorted it was time to head into town again. I was supposed to catch up with the Danish couple I met during the dive trip. However, I still had some time beforehand. So I quickly headed into the Ancient town, where the locals started to get ready for a night long lantern selling. For a quick snack I sat down at a little stall next to the market selling freshly grilled meat, served with vegetables, rice noodle, rice paper and peanut sauce. It was roll-your-own spring roll. The meat was great, and for 10,000 Dong per skewer it was rather cheap. To ensure I still have some appetite left for dinner I had only three.
The next place on my place was the gallery of Hoang Trong Tien. I bought a lovely painting there during my last visit, though I only met Tien’s wife. This time both of them were there, and I had a conversation with him. I was interested to see if he still had the painting I nearly bought last time (and didn’t as I wrongly thought it would be too dark for my flat). He showed me around, and I was once again impressed with his work, unfortunately the painting I saw last time was sold. No problem at all – he advised me to come back the next morning and he would bring a similar painting from home. I was looking forward to that.

It was then time to head to the Dive Bar to catch up with the Danish couple. Over two beer we talked about the dive trip, and how the night on the beach was. For dinner I suggested Hai Café as I had some good grilled food  last time, and as it was just a short walk we headed there. Luckily we got a table in the back garden (nicer than sitting inside). As last time the food was very good. I had mackerel in banana leave, and it was tasty. They had a mixed grill plate, and it looked good (and apparently tasted as good). For desert I had some deep fried ice cream, and it was also very good.
I usually prefer the little food places, but Hai Café serves good food – and it wasn’t too expensive (including a few beer it was around 200.000 Dong per person).
It was a nice evening, but unfortunately they left the next day, so it was goodbye after dinner. And as I was tired due to the less than perfect sleep I had the night before, I headed back to the homestay.

 

The next day started well again – with a Cao Lau for breakfast, served with  fresh fruit. You can hardly start the day any better. Though I had to promise to try their other breakfast items as well – so I ordered Quang Noodle for the following morning.

Before entering the Ancient Town during the day for the first time I had to pay 120.000 Dong entrance fee. The fee includes entry to any five of the museums, traditional houses, assembly halls or temples – and free access to the Ancient Town for the whole stay. All that for around $6 is not a bad price.

As agreed I headed to the gallery, and was welcomed with a lovely Ca Fe Sua Da and some lovely little cakes filled with cream (they are sold out so quickly so you have to buy them early in the morning). I enjoyed both while sitting with Tien on the first floor, able to overlook the busy street with tourists. I fully enjoyed the conversation with him. He told me about Hoi An before it became so popular, how there was hardly any shops in the 90s when he opened his first gallery, how now so many places are foreign owned, and how the city has changed. He also mentioned that it became a little more difficult for him, as other galleries tried to copy his painting. He was proud so when he said they never managed that, as he has a unique style painting with his finger nails (and it is true, I haven’t seen any similar paintings in the other galleries), but he still had made some adjustment. So for example the houses of paintings of Hoi An are now red and white, and not yellow as he did in the past. He showed me some of his older paintings that are not for sale, and it was interesting to see the change of style and colours used.

After a lengthy conversation (and finishing all the delicious cakes) he then showed me the painting he brought from his house for me – and it was stunning. Even better than the one I nearly bought the last time. It was bigger too. After looking around a bit more I narrowed my choice to 3 paintings. I kind of knew that I would buy a small one anyway, as I couldn’t stop looking at it, but needed time to make my mind up if I want to buy the darker or lighter painting – size and price had to be taken into consideration as well.
We agreed that I will come back the next day – giving me some thinking time. I was impressed when he took the three paintings off the wall to reserve them for me.
As a bye I got more of the cakes from his wife (they didn’t survive long in the little bag), and Tien provided a recommendation for a great lunch.

After the enjoyable morning it was time to do a little bit sightseeing. I headed to the Cantonese Assembly Hall, next to the Japanese bridge. In front of the entrance is a little statue of two dragons, and inside you can see some very nice paintings and a model of a Chinese junk. But the highlight for me is the back garden. It looks like a traditional Asian garden, with two little streams, where small bamboo bridges enables dry crossing, a large beautiful art work on the back wall of the building (looked kind of 3D), a statue what seems like the mother of the two wee dragons outside, and a statue in memory of the one and only mascot of my Cologne Football Club 1.FC Köln – the goat Hennes. OK, maybe it was not a statue for him, but it is still an unusual statue. Overall it is a very nice assembly hall, and worth a visit.

For lunch I decided to try out the recommended Bale Well. It is located in a little alley off Phan Chau Trinh Street. I expected a food stall so I initially walked past the place. It was not bad, as the alley was interesting to explore, with the houses and some little food stalls at the end before heading out to Trang Hung Dao.
In the end I managed to get to Bale Well, and got a seat at one of the tables outside. I was glad that they had several fans outside that provided some coldish air, as it was hot. They are famous for one dish – Be Ban Xeo. So I ordered one portion. Here is one important advice: go there with a huge appetite, the portion is not small. I suddenly got a few plates with salad, Nem Nuong & Thit Nuong (grilled pork satay and grilled pork- fresh from the massive grill is outside the entrance), Ban Xeo (deep fried rice pancakes), spring rolls, rice noodles, rice paper and dipping sauce. It was huge. Eating everything together involved some work: you have to stuff everything into the rice paper, dip it into the lovely sauce, and volia – you have an amazing dish. I had this in different places, but I think this has been the best fresh roll dish I had so far. And you even get a chocolate mouse as desert. Add a large beer (obviously I only had it to cool down) and the bill was 135.000 Dong!!! Great value for money for great tasty food. Highly recommended!!!

After this massive lunch I decided to stretch my legs and my belly, and walked around the Ancient town. I knew the street from my last visit, but it was still nice to go for a stroll. Though unlike last time you could see bright coloured flowers everywhere, on balconies, on trees between houses, everywhere. The contrast to the yellow building made the Ancient town even more beautiful.


For a little break I had another ice coffee at the Blue Dragon café near the ferry point. The coffee still tasted good there, and the view was still great to watch people.
Unfortunately I spotted a change in Hoi An – and it was a not a good change. From different speakers along he street an annoying voice would share some bits, like warning about theft, and telling everyone that Hoi An is a touristy place. Really, Hoi An is touristy??? Shit Sherlock – I didn’t know. You could hear the same un-important messages every 10 minutes. For me it is annoying and kills the atmosphere – whoever had this brilliant idea should be kicked – hard!!! I also got the feeling to see more bikes in the Ancient town during the day, didn’t see that during my first visit. I hope they change both, as it could damage the great atmosphere of Hoi An.

I then realised that I needed more Dong. So I headed to the BIDV – unfortunately my EC card from Germany was not accepted. AS I was used not to have any issues with my British Visa card in the past I didn’t expect that issue. I even went into two different branches, but no luck. I was finally able to find an ATM that did accept my card, but the limit was only 2.000.000 Dong. I decided to use my Credit Card instead in the future so I could get more out in one transaction, but I am still not sure which option was cheaper. Still, I never had that issue with my British Visa debit card – so clearly German banks are not very useful when travelling abroad (even when they tell you that there is no issue!!!). So make sure you have a contingency card with you when your main on is a German EC card!!!

Next I did something I missed last time I was in Hoi An – visiting the little shrine inside the Japanese covered bridge. It is rather small, but it was nice to see the whole section of the bridge. You will spend more time in the houses and assembly halls, but nonetheless it is worth a visit.

In the end I followed the road along the river out of the Ancient Town, and instead crossing the river via the car bridge, I turned right and followed the road towards a temple I saw when I came from the airport. The temple itself was closed, instead kids were cycling over the little bridge and playing football on the big square in front of it. But it seemed they had to be a little bit more careful with shooting, as the ball went a few times into the pond between the street and the square – and one boy had to climb down and jump into the water. it didn’t look like the nicest task, and the other boys enjoyed watching him doing the dirty work. It was lovely to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere, and the kids were constantly waving at me. It shows there is more to see in Hoi An than just the Ancient Town.

 

It was time to relax a bit in my room before I could experience something I heard about – the lantern festival in Hoi An during Full Moon. I was looking forward to it, and expected that the main lights were switched off in the whole Ancient Town, and light would just come from the lanterns. And I must admit, walking towards the lake the view of the Ancient town between the Japanese covered bridge and the square was magical, the only lights coming from the lanterns, the bulbs in the shops were dimmed or switched off.

It was just beautiful. I think there were even more locals selling the floating candles, and I thought it was the right time to put one onto the river myself. In addition of the beautiful setting around the square there were a few activities going on. Once again there was Vietnamese bingo. I actually joined the game, getting three wooden plates with three symbols each – cost was 20.000 Dong each. I still have no idea what the story was the singers were telling, but I fully understood to raise my hand when I recognised a symbol carried by the man that was on my plate. I think I got a bit more enthusiastic every time I got a little yellow flag to indicate I had a symbol. It was exciting when I had two symbols for two of my plates, and was hoping to get a third and then to jump up shouting “Bingo”, while the locals would have no idea what I was shouting…unfortunately I didn’t win. Instead three people got several prices packed in a bag. Well, at least there was no chance to embarrass me for now.

Another game on offer was hitting a ceramic vase with a wooden club while blindfolded. Watching people nearly fallen over their feet while missing the target was entertaining, and some unlucky ones managed a direct hit – just without enough power. The broken ceramic bits on the street indicated though that there were a few successful hits.
For art lovers there was a little stage where they performed some kind of theatre (or soap opera). The singers were in the back of the stage, while the actors were on stage. This was also nice to watch for a while.
The food stalls were open as usual. I was still full from lunch, so I tried a cold fish salad, which was interesting an didn’t taste too bad.


Unfortunately, walking into the Ancient Town my excitement died down, as it seems the great atmosphere with the lights out was only limited for the square and the area around the Japanese covered bridge – in the rest of the Ancient town it was business as usual, with the lights from the restaurants and shops as bright as usual. I thought the nice atmosphere would be all over the Ancient Town, but it isn’t  – a little bit of a let down.
Still, I was able to listen to a three man band playing some lovely traditional music, before trying something new: Che Thap Cam. This is some kind of desert with water, black beans, jelly and other sweets. It sounds strange, it looks strange, but for some reason it is actually nice. While I enjoyed it I was also able to listen to a child choir singing some Vietnamese songs. So wherever you go – there was always something on.

Around 10pm everything was over, and as if they were waiting for it, the Ancient Town was suddenly full of motorbikes as they were allowed into the ancient streets. They even drove on the main walking bridge, despite being full of people, but without any consideration they used their horn and people had to get out of the way if they like to keep bruises to a minimum. The cyclos were not any better. Again, I haven’t seen it previously, and it is another development which doesn’t bode well for the future of Hoi An as a tourist hub!!!I was glad to be out of the Ancient town, but I wasn’t really in the mood of a late night, so instead I went for a foot massage. It seems the price for a massage is over 300,000 Dong or more per hour, and 30 minute is around 200,000. I got one for 150,000 Dong, and it was actually very relaxing to finish the day that way, before heading to bed.

 

The next morning I had Quang Noodles for a change – it is not bad, but it doesn’t come even close to Cao Lau. It was still nice to sit outside, enjoying he food and chatting to some of the other guests. A nice relaxing way to start the day.

I was a bit too lazy to hire a bicycle, so I walked back to the Ancient Town and spend my day there with some walking around. As there was light rain the street was a bit quieter, which was nice. The store owners were quiet – though I found a nice hat shop – unfortunately the one I liked didn’t fit. So my search for a new hat continued – thankfully I found a nice one later the day.
I headed to the Ceramic Museum. It is located in another lovely old house, with the typical yard in the middle of the building. The main exhibition are obviously several ceramics, telling about the history of hat art in Hoi An, and what the Chinese and Japanese brought to Hoi An. The building is nice, but content wise I prefer the Folklore museum.

I needed a little break and went for an ice coffee to a little food place called Des Amis. it is a place with a nice feel. I spoke to the owner, who is a chef who have worked in several countries in Europe, and obviously he had a book with comments and recommendation. For dinner they serve a menu containing several dishes – and they change every day. I must admit it sounded interesting – unfortunately I was invited for dinner at the homestay so I couldn’t try the food there. But it is a place I will visit during my next visit.

Next I decided to take a little boat ride – price was 200,000 Dong to explore the area on water for 30 minutes. It was still raining, but the boat was covered by a roof, so it was actually perfect to spend the time. While on board I extended the tour to an hour.
The boat went along the riverside of Hoi An, keeping Cam Nam island to our right. It was nice to sit back and enjoying the view of houses along the river, water buffalos on a sandbank, locals doing their daily work on leave for Cham islands, and then went back the river parallel to the one, going underneath a new big car bridge. I must say I really enjoyed this relaxing boat trip to see again a bit more of the surrounding area.

Having solid ground under my shoes again I decided it was time for lunch, and as I haven’t been there yet I headed back to the place where I had one of my best Banh Mis so far: Banh Mu Phuong. As last time there was a big queue – unfortunately my trick from last time (sitting inside and ordering a Banh Mi there) didn’t work, so I had to queue. But it was so worthwhile. The baguette with the pork was amazing, just amazing. Together with a fresh lemon juice (which became my favourite cold drink besides beer and Ca Fe Sua Da) it was a wonderful lunch. I also took the time to arrange the next part of my journey. I was planning to head to Quang Ngai. The train journey didn’t interest me, so instead I contacted Mr Thong from Easy Rider Hoi An. After a quick call the trip was arranged – travelling from Hoi An to Quang Ngai on the back of a bike, which is my favourite way to travel in Vietnam.

After that I went for another stroll, and found an interesting shop on Tran Phu Street. On the left side (looking towards the Japanese covered bridge) is a shop selling models of famous ships. But not tiny ones, but some medium to large boats (one was as tall as an adult!!!), all hand crafted. I am sure anyone who love boats wouldn’t mind having one of these models at home. I was tempted (they offer sending it to Europe as well).

But I had another place to go to – Tien’s gallery. I had 1 1/2 days time to make a decision, but still wasn’t sure. No problem, I was sitting once again up on the first floor overlooking the now busy street enjoying another coffee, and chatting to Tien. In the end I had to make my mind up. As he knew the measurements of the wall in my flat for the painting, he was very keen to sell me the painting he brought over to me. When I mentioned that I was leaning towards the smaller red / white one, he went further down with the price, and there was hardly a big difference price wise. I read somewhere that for Tien it is important that there is connection between a buyer and the painting, and he understood that I liked it – and I got the same impression. It was really not about the money, but that I got the right painting. So in the end, I bought a big painting plus a small one (one I was buying anyway) – and once again they were packed in a high quality protective tube (the frame shop I brought my first painting to was impressed with the quality and that it was free). Doing this purchase was not just walking into a gallery and pushed to buy something. It was more like a visit to a friend who has some interesting stories to share, and loves what he does – and doing it great. I am now the proud owner of three paintings from Tien – and if I return to Hoi An again, I might get another one!!! IF someone like art, I would highly recommend to visit Tien’s gallery – even if it is just to meet him.

I spent my last dinner at the homestay, with some of the other guests. it was nice to eat home made food once again (and every dish  got here was great), and sharing stories. I heard some interesting bits about the caves near Dong Hoi (though I am glad I didn’t go this time as it was apparently very wet, humid and hot!!!). You cannot ask for a better way to finish a stay here.

I took the chance for a last visit to the Ancient town by night, walking along the streets and side alleys, soaking in the atmosphere. And I also realised that it is a small place. I walking alone one of the main streets when I heard somebody shouting and running after me. I didn’t realise it was me she was after, but when she was next to me I recognised her straight away, especially when her husband appeared next to her. It was the expat I met here during Christmas. They own a little café near the beach, and I visited them on my last day during my previous stay. I couldn’t believe they recognised me straight away. Unfortunately they were in a hurry and haven’t had any time for a drink, but it was still a pleasant surprise.

I finished the evening using the last chance to have another Hoi An speciality – deep fried Won Ton topped with vegetables and meat. It is a tasty snack. Watching the lanterns floating on the river for a last time, it was time to head back to the room and pack my bag.

 

The next morning I once again I enjoyed a great Cao Lau, and for a second time I had to say goodbye to Nhung and her family, after they looked after me so well again.

Overall I enjoyed my second stay in Hoi. It is a lovely town, and very very popular with tourists. Seeing the Ancient town and eating the tasty food it is not difficult to understand why. However, I must admit some of the current development I have seen, mainly the stupid speakers providing useless information but killing the atmosphere, and the amount of scooters driving there partly during the day, but worse, after 10pm are signs that the Vietnamese really don’t understand tourists. If they continue to develop such bright ideas, I think the town could suffer – which would be a shame.
Also I was slightly underwhelmed by the lantern festival. Yes, the area around the square looked magical, but I was disappointed it was limited to the small area. Considering that they use the lantern festival for advertising a visit the town it is a shame they do not use the concept throughout the Ancient Town – that would be something special.
But would I still recommend a visit here? Yes, I would.

 

Accommodation:
Staying at the NGO homestay was lovely again. Nhung and her family still offer superb hospitality, and I was welcomed back like a long lost family member (not like a auntie no one likes!!!), and even when the room I booked for the second part of my stay was no issue, the other room was nice. The shared dinner organised in the restaurant and at the homestay were a great way to meet the other guests, to share stories and enjoying lovely food. This adds to the rating of the homestay. I doubt I would consider any other place to stay when visiting Hoi An.

Recommendation
I can recommend a few things. Food wise everybody should definitely visit Bale Well and Banh Mi Phuong. Perfect local food! And obviously no visit to Hoi An is complete without trying the local specialities Cao Lau (one of my favourite food in Vietnam), White Rose and fried Won Ton.
Activity wise the Ancient Town deserves some time – rushing here doesn’t help anyone. Ad exploring some places outside the Ancient Town, or even just the little side alleys, are things worthwhile to do as well/
I am still not 100% sure if it is worth it to travel to Hoi An for the lantern festival. I am torn, as the little area around the square looks great, but at the same time it is much busier in Hoi An. It would be interesting to see how it would be if the whole Ancient Town would use lanterns only as light source.
And finally, if you like art visit the Hoan Trong Tien Gallery.
And for German traveller, make sure you have a an substitute for the EC card, as it is not widely accepted at ATMs (especially by those allowing a withdrawal more than 2.000.000 Dong). Having a Visa or Mastercard might be a good idea

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