12.03.2011 - 15.03.2011 30 °C
12th March 2011
Yesterday we finally received our passports back from Nungh, complete with Visas for China. That was a huge weight off our minds which meant today we could stop worrying and get on with the business of travelling!
Today we were flying to Da Nang and then heading to Hoi An by bus, so the pair of us were up and downstairs eating our unusual breakfast of jam roll with lukewarm coffee by around 7:30 am and were climbing in our airport bound taxi at 8:15am to catch our 10:40am flight. Arriving at Ho Chi Minh airport we were glad to find a very small queue at the check-in desks and were saying goodbye to our heavy backpacks in no time. As there was very little to look at this side of the departure lounge we elected to go straight up and through departures and wait there for our flight to be called. As we headed up the escalator we were horrified when we saw the queue to get through security. There were about 10 lines full of people and each line was all the way back to the rear wall. The security checks were ridiculously slow and they were only allowing one person to put their hand luggage through the x-ray machine at a time. People started pushing in front of us and we kept telling them (with the cooperation of the people in front of us), in no uncertain terms, to get to the back of the queue! After an eternity we were through security unscathed and went straight upstairs to our gate as time was now limited. Our flight was on time and was pretty uneventful. We landed at Da Nang airport as scheduled at 10.40. We were almost the first ones off the plane and our luggage was, unusually, first off the carousel. We walked to a taxi desk and asked where the bus terminal was and were told we needed to get a taxi to the bus station as it was too far to walk. We weren’t convinced so went outside to take a look. A driver came over to us and asked where we were going. We were soon on our way in his taxi to the bus station! It was a quite a distance before we were being dropped off outside a very dusty, scruffy looking bus terminal. After paying our cab driver our eyes wandered along the row of touts all standing guard outside their ticket offices waiting for the likes of us – tourists with money to burn! After running the gauntlet of the salesmen all trying to direct us to their little corner of the terminal and managing to just say no and keep walking, we spotted our quarry – the bright yellow local bus headed for Hoi An. After a little research on the internet the day before, we knew exactly what we were looking for and how much the ticket should be. The conductor had other ideas about the fare and demanded more than we knew it should cost. We didn’t waver and Jen was having none of it and decided to get the other passengers involved by asking them how much they had paid for their ticket. A couple of them quite sheepishly answered and we gave the conductor the same amount. He wasn’t overly impressed and demanded more but we just said no and sat down. One of the passengers said something to him in Vietnamese (which we took to mean he shouldn’t try and screw us over) and the conductor smiled and put the money in his pocket, saying no more. At last – a little victory in the war against being conned over transport costs!! We hugged our backpacks and rucksacks as best we could on the small vehicle, trying to make as much room as possible and settled on our seats for the hour long journey to Hoi An. Once the bus had started off, it seemed to stop every few yards to pick up people or set them down, and it wasn’t too long before the bus was so full that people had to sit on the floor in the aisles. We tried to get our bags out of the way as best we could but it was very difficult and we ended up with our huge rucksacks on our laps for some of the way! The bus driver seemed to drive with one hand on the wheel and the other on the horn! It was constantly in use and became quite an irritation! An hour or so later and we were being dropped at the bus terminal. It was baking hot and we looked around to get our bearings, expecting the bus station to look a lot different than it did, according to our research. We had, in actual fact, been dropped off at a totally different terminal! We headed for the street to hail a cab and were stopped in our tracks by a small group of old men who were determined to get us on the back of their motorbikes – Stew on one, Jen on another and our backpacks on yet another! We had absolutely no intention of giving this a go and told them we wanted a taxi and that we were not interested in riding pillion! Our pleas fell on deaf ears and we looked around the streets, having to ignore the advice of the old men insisting theirs was a great idea! There were no taxis around whatsoever. Tired, thirsty and fed up we headed across the street to a small street cafe for a cool drink and a sit down to try and work out where we needed to go and how we were going to get there. With no WiFi service at the cafe we phoned the hotel and the cafe owner very kindly spoke to the receptionist on our behalf with the hotel agreeing to send a taxi to collect us. It arrived within minutes and we were soon pulling up outside our new abode, the Hai Au Hotel. It was an extremely pleasant place with a very friendly receptionist who made a point of calling all the guests by their first names. Our room was quite reasonable too so, all in all, we were happy campers! Both of us wanted to familiarise ourselves with the town almost immediately and, armed with a street map of the area with some personal recommendations circled and annotated by our enthusiastic receptionist, the two of us set off in blinding sunshine and roasting heat to see what Hoi An, the town the 18th century Japanese considered to be the heart of The Dragon (Asia), could do for us. It probably took all of ten minutes for us to fall in love with the place! It is, quite simply, one of the prettiest towns one will ever see on this planet! There are temples in abundance, it overflows with stores, cafes and stalls, everywhere the colours rich and varied, each hue a dazzling vividness and the riverfront is an artist’s paradise. Down one particular street, each store was painted pastel yellow and white, with dark wood doors, jambs and window frames. Creeping ivy or pots with plants of varying shades of green adorned the upper floors. Coupled with their colourful wares (amid the chorus of “Hello - You buy sumsing”?!!) such as Chinese lanterns, silks and fresh fruits, it was picture postcard perfect and a photographer’s dream. One of the items we’d had circled on our map as a ‘must-see’ was the Japanese Covered Bridge and we headed in the general direction determined not to miss a single thing on the way. It is such a pretty place and as we ambled along the streets we couldn’t stop grinning inanely as our eyes feasted on everything around us, including a number of incredibly ornate and colourful temples we happened across on the way. We had been told that we could purchase a ticket that allowed you to enter all or some of the temples in a day saving you some money, or you could choose to pay the entry fee of only the temples you wanted to visit. As it was so late in the day we opted to go into a couple of them as we made our way towards the bridge. They were extravagant, colourful, ostentatious, peaceful, calming and amazing to look at! Incense burned everywhere from large, cone-shaped incense sticks that resembled lanterns hung from the ceiling, Buddha images large and small sat on pedestals or inside glass cases, statues of dragons and lions adorned walls and courtyards, golden characters in frames hung from walls, golden urns stood on black lacquered stands, yellow ribbons hung from centrepieces, shrubs and flowers splashed more colour across courtyards and inner sanctums, doors held beautiful, elaborate carvings of wise men and plaques with gold lettering hung over every doorway. We walked on a little way before, inevitably, succumbing to the call of food! Finding a small cafe we took our seats at a small table and went through the small menu. A young guy holding a small dog came over to take our order and introduced us to “Jane” and proceeded to tell us all about her for the next fifteen minutes. The pizza, too, was small and not good! Sated, we carried on our walk and reached the Japanese Covered Bridge, a curious construction built in the 1590s by the Japanese community at the time to link them to the Chinese community on the other side. It is made almost entirely of wood, spanning a stream from the Thu Bon river that runs through Hoi An and has become the symbol of Hoi An. Inside the bridge is a small temple dedicated to the God of weather, Tran Vo Bac De. As we crossed over and to the other side, the town just seemed to get prettier. Lanterns of every colour hung from ceilings of open-fronted shops, materials of red, oranges, yellows and golds amongst others radiated in the sunshine, wonderful old ladies with weathered faces ambled along the street carrying pots over their shoulders on the ends of a length of bamboo while others sat on the roadside selling little souvenirs from baskets. The light was beginning to fade so we decided to head down to the river to watch the sunset. It took our breath away it was so beautiful! Along the river the town outdid itself and the colours seemed to become even more vibrant. Chinese lanterns hung from trees, the shops and restaurants shone in the dying sunlight, boats of bright blues, yellows, reds and greens sat on the still waters of the river tied to one another while small craft with painted eyes drifted slowly along, powered only by the oars held in the arms of old men and women. The red bridge that spanned the river was adorned with different coloured lanterns and flags while huge multi-coloured models of animals sat in the water. And to cap it all, the sun turned a brilliant orange in the cloudless sky and bathed everything in a red glow. It was quite amazing. Jen even borrowed a lady’s conical hat and the baskets she was carrying over her shoulders to try them for size! We started a slow walk back (visiting some of the shops on the way of course!) as tiredness (and hunger again!) were creeping up on us, electing to eat at the hotel and check up on events in Japan before crawling into bed for a much needed early night.
14th March 2011
After another day of walking up and down the wonderful town and around the river yesterday, today it was tour day and we were up at the ridiculous hour of 4:30am this morning (after suffering the terrible noise emanating from the Karaoke bar opposite our hotel room until about 11pm where only the bar staff were singing as they had no customers!) for our tour to My Son (pronounced Mee Sonne), an area with a group of Hindu temples dedicated to the God Shiva, constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries by the Cham people some 70km southwest of Da Nang. We were to be there for sunrise, hence the very early start and, as we were being picked up at 5am, we crept downstairs and into the pitch blackness of the reception area. We could just about see where we were going and slowly made our way to the door - only to find it locked! Without warning a figure covered in a sheet got up from the sofa and came towards us, making us jump out of our skins! The night watchman discarded his blanket and unlocked the door for us! We walked out into the warm morning air and waited for about ten minutes before our mini bus arrived to take us to the tour office where we were to have breakfast before starting our journey proper. After picking up some more passengers we were dropped off at the tour office and joined a small group of people around a number of plastic tables upon which some rolls, butter, omelettes and unbelievably strong Vietnamese coffee were sitting for our breakfast. After another half an hour or so, our bus arrived and everyone piled on board and made themselves comfortable for the hour and a half journey ahead. We passed some lovely scenery and drove through some pretty villages on the way before heading into the hills. The sun was already up by the time our bus arrived at the temple site and it pulled into a completely empty car park. There wasn’t a soul around and we all climbed off the coach and milled around the area while waiting for our tour guide to buy the tickets before walking up the long pathway that led to the ruins of My Son. Birds, seemingly in every tree, chirped their morning songs loudly as the sun shone through a veiling, early morning mist adding a degree of drama and mystery to the whole site. The first area we came to was a number of decaying towers that must have looked pretty impressive in their day. They were red bricked buildings in various states of disrepair with all manna of flora growing out of them. Even to this day archaeologists can only theorise about how the bricks were stuck together as there is no mortar between them! Some have suggested they used tree sap or honey and others suggested egg white (as used in the mortar in the Peruvian Adobe houses) but tests have shown no organic material on any of the bricks! Another amazing fact is that the bricks used in some of the restoration work have deteriorated while the originals are still perfect! Walking around the site we found ornate doorways and stone carvings adorned the walls and surrounding areas. The jungle encroached on the entire site giving it a beauty all of its own as everything was bathed in green. Pedestals that once held statues and busts sat covered in moss and weeds with nothing to show. Other pedestals were in pieces or badly cracked. In other areas just the bases of buildings remain. A show room has been built specifically to showcase some of the stonework found in the area to protect them from the elements. Our guide was knowledgeable and enthusiastic but, unfortunately, her English wasn’t too good and we missed quite a lot of her explanations but one fact that we did understand quite shocked us. Prior to the outbreak of the Vietnam War there were 70 buildings intact at My Son. At the close of the conflict, only 20 remained! The Vietcong used the site as a base and the US ran carpet bombing operations on the area, totally demolishing many of the temples. The resulting bomb craters are everywhere. It is such a terrible shame. There is a renovation programme ongoing but the work is slow and not much progress is being made. One of the temples being put back together brick by brick is covered by a huge corrugated iron roof and just looks a complete mess at the moment. We walked around it and were amazed to discover quite a few Funnel Web Spiders making their homes amongst the loose brickwork! Our tour lasted around an hour and a half and we walked back to our coach through the jungle and were taken back to our hotel. As it was still fairly early we managed to grab breakfast at the hotel before heading to our room for a power snooze!
After a few hours and feeling quite refreshed we headed out to the wonderful town again and decided to visit the market where we bought some cheap t-shirts before heading to the other side of the river in search of the beach. All we found, though, was the banks of the river so headed back to grab a bite to eat. Jen had noticed a restaurant earlier with nice cakes on display so we elected to have something nice there. After trudging up and down a few streets we finally found it and took a table inside. We wished we hadn’t to be honest! The waitress was unfriendly, the food took forever to arrive and was quite horrible when it did and a rat was happily running around the place! We didn’t even bother with dessert...
After another walk around the shops along the riverside we opted for an early night as we had another early morning tomorrow for our bus journey to Hue. We were definitely going to miss Hoi An though.