Pumpkin Soup and Hoi An’s many other beauties

Time, and the way we talk about time, is funny. All my fellow travelers said to me when I told them that I was going to Hoi An was that I was going to love the ancient city. And I did love it, but it was not what I had expected. Because the word ancient was emphasized so much I had pictured a place frozen in time. I had pictured a place where I would be able to feel the history with every step and imagined I would be surrounded by secrets which I would never be able to understand. But time does not freeze. Places change and grow just like people do. Many people were there to visit the ancient city, and so the ancient city changed in order to please them. There were many shops and restaurants with big open windows to let the breeze in, but none of them seemed to be for the locals. It seemed that now everything was there for us, and it was a little hard to see the ancient behind all the souvenirs.

But despite all of that, Hoi An was incredibly beautiful. The air was warm and the sun sparkled off the water and all the people around us seemed happy. There were flowers and brightly coloured fabrics on every corner and I really enjoyed poking around and looking at all the pretty things. It was quite a change from what we had been experiencing before. One evening as we made our way to the night market, we stopped for Piña Coladas on a boat bar on the river. It certainly wasn’t an “authentically Vietnamese” activity, but it was a wonderful place to watch the sun go down. Plus, after trekking for three days it felt good to treat ourselves to some summery drinks on a wooden boat.

But don’t get me wrong, the ancient city was there, you just had to look for it. Izzi and I bought a pass so we could see a collection of the preserved ancient houses and temples. I learned a lot from all of them. Many of the temples are actually Chinese temples. In the mid 17th century the Qing dynasty took power from the Ming Dynasty and many people who were not willing to obey the new regime took refuge in Vietnam. The Nguyen Lord welcomed them and gave them Vietnamese citizenship. Although the Chinese settled in many areas, Hoi An was the most popular. This migration influenced much of Hoi An’s architecture in a Chinese style.

The temples were very beautiful, but my favourite heritage site was the Duc An Bookstore, which was also highly influenced by the Chinese. It was built at the end of the 19th century and held books by many Chinese authors and philosophers including Khang Huu Vi and Luong Khai Sieu. Many early anti-French revolutionaries came to this bookstore to meet and discuss the progressive ideas from the Chinese authors. The book store was an important site for Vietnamese independence.

Hoi An was also full of little gems that, although not necessarily ancient, were wonderful all the same. Of course, we drank a lot of coffee and visited a lot of cafes but our absolute favourite was Reaching Out—a tea house built around a philosophy of silence. The point was to be at peace, enjoying the subtleties in the taste of the tea and the beauty around us. The spot was incredibly beautiful. Izzi and I fell in love with our surroundings and both felt like we could have stayed there forever. The silence was emphasized by the fact that all the servers were deaf so we weren’t able to communicate with them vocally. Instead they provided us with little wooden signs so we could ask for what we needed.

Reaching Out’s mission is to give jobs to individuals in the community who are disabled. Vietnam is not an easy place to live, and especially not with a disability, so Reaching Out gives those who need it a good, stable place to work where their rights are protected. All the servers at the tea house were deaf, but they have jobs for all sorts of differently abled people. Not far from the tea house they also have a workshop where they make beautiful gifts. The work shop is right behind the store so you can go in and see the craftspeople making everything. It was very hard for me to choose, but eventually I bought a couple beautiful little tea cups, a tea strainer, and some fair trade tea and coffee. If we hadn’t been backpacking and I didn’t have to worry about everything breaking I would have bought an entire tea set.

The Central Market was definitely the place to go for lunch. There were a lot of tourists, of course, but we found a stand that seemed to be popular with the locals called Mrs Hien’s, and waited for a spot there. It was definitely worth a bit of a wait. Izzi got a Cao Lao (noodles, broth, and beef) and I got a Bahn Mi and a pumpkin soup. I have to say that the Bahn Mi wasn’t as good as the one I had gotten in Hanoi, but the pumpkin soup was unbelievable. It was like no other pumpkin soup I had ever eaten before and it was definitely one of the most memorable meals I had during my time in Vietnam. When we finished eating, we went out the back instead of the way we came in and that’s where we found the real market. There were vegetables everywhere and live crabs with their claws tied up with twine. I strolled happily along the water taking in all the smells and sounds and feeling like I had really found Hoi An.

One of the main things to do in the little city is to take a cooking class. There are tons of options everywhere you go, but we decided on Vy’s Market after passing by on our first night there. When we signed up they told us not to eat for three hours before the class, but they really should have told us not to eat all day. When we arrived we met our guide, Cherry, who was wonderful. I say guide because the evening really felt like a tour. The place was set up with tables in the middle and then different stations dedicated to different types of food all along the edges. We started at the noodle making station, although we weren’t allowed to actually know the recipe for the dough since, apparently, it was a family secret of the chef’s. There we tried our best to cut the dough into noodle strips, which I failed miserably at. When I tried to go anywhere close to the speed of the chef the noodles came out way too thick, but if I slowed down to get them the right size I realized it was definitely not a sustainable pace. I was much better at the dumplings. First we got the dough to the right consistency using rice flour, then shaped it before wrapping it in a banana leaf. It was sticky and wonderful and I was really excited to add the filling later on.

We also made spring rolls, which were awesome, but my favourite thing to make was the Vietnamese pancakes. This was the most fun because I felt like I was actually doing everything myself and it turned out really well! I hadn’t tried that dish yet so it was cool trying something traditional that I had made myself.

And then there was the”Weird and Wonderful” station where we didn’t cook anything but had the chance to try some of Vietnam’s strangest and least tourist-friendly dishes. I liked the beef tongue best and the frogs were also great, but I just could not handle the duck fetus. I am a really adventurous eater and it takes a lot to pass my limit, but a duck that has been allowed to develop about half way inside its egg and then boiled and eaten… that was too much for me. At the end of the evening, when Izzi and I were both so full that we almost couldn’t eat the dumplings we had prepared at the beginning of the night, Cherry gave us a booklet of all the recipes we had tried out. I’m hoping to put some of them up here soon!

The cooking class was a Hoi An must-do, but we also couldn’t visit and not get some clothes made. Hoi An has been a tailor city for thousands of years. The ancient emperors used to have all of their clothes made by tailors from there and the tradition has lived on. Bing, our host at Cloudy Homestay, told us not to go to a place in the ancient city because they would surely overcharge us. Instead she sent us to Bao Diep tailer. I promise I really meant to just get one thing. All I wanted was a silk dressing gown, but they were too good. Kim, the lady helping me, knew exactly what she was doing. As soon as I sat down with her she handed me an iPad which already had the Pinterest app open. She told me to just look through everything for a while. “I can make anything you find on here,” she told me. After I picked the designs I wanted, we picked out the fabrics (I fell in love with linen that day) and then Kim took my measurements. I’ve never felt more like royalty. We went back the next day to try on the clothes and then after they made a few alterations they all ended up perfect. Needless to say, I got more than a dressing gown. I also got a dress, a skirt/shirt combo, a blazer, a white linen shirt, and some silk slippers. I’ve never had clothes that fit me so well, made specifically for my body’s individual shape. I spent much more than I had planned, but there is no way I would have ever been able to do that at home and the experience was amazing.

I felt very pampered by Hoi An. The way we treated ourselves there was definitely not how I’m accustomed to traveling, but it was definitely the best way to experience the city. Plus, some luxury was needed after our days in Sapa and before we made the trip to Saigon.

Cat Ba Island: A breath of fresh air

Izzi and I really did mean to visit Ha Long Bay. In fact, it was one of the things I was most excited about after looking up pictures on the internet pre-trip. To me, it was the perfect Asian water landscape and I couldn’t wait to see it. Unfortunately, we did not make it to Ha Long Bay. When buying our train and bus tickets in Hanoi we got some dates mixed up and in the end we had a grand total of only 24 hours on Cat Ba Island.

Getting there was an adventure in itself. First we took a five hour bus ride from Hanoi and then a 45 minute ferry to the island. The bus was a hilarious nightmare. The length wasn’t so bad, five hours is nothing when you’re traveling, but for some reason the driver decided that it would be appropriate to blast horrible dub step the entire way. Nobody on the bus wanted to say anything to him, so we sat with our own music turned up as loud as it could possibly go, trying our best to get some sleep. Part of me thinks that he really just liked that kind of music and wanted to play it, but it was so bad and so loud that another part of me thinks he just wanted to torture the tourists. When we got off the bus and looked around, I was a little confused. We were at a rather shabby dock with rusty fishing boats sitting in water that looked less than pristine. This wasn’t exactly the paradise I had pictured, but we were hurried onto the ferry and my mood lifted as we started off across the water.

I dozed in an out of the sleep, soothed by the rocking of the boat, and when I opened my eyes I spotted an island shrouded with mist and mystery in the distance. Land ho. When we arrived on land we got on yet another bus and then finally, we arrived in town. The company we had booked the bus/ferry through also owned a hostel in town called Full Moon Hostel, and that’s where we disembarked. I was not thrilled about the hostel and the town in general gave me a weird feeling. It seemed almost ghostly, as if it no longer had any purpose but to feed and house the tourists coming through. At least, that was the impression from the centre of town. But as it turns out, the hostel Izzi had booked was about half an hour away from town. After such a long trip to get there I wasn’t looking forward to another drive, and the taxi wasn’t cheap, but man was it worth it.

The hostel was called Woodstock Beach Camp and it was located at the tip of a little cove. The air immediately felt better when I got out of the taxi and I filled my lungs with the wind coming off of the water. The beach was literally steps from the front of the hostel and there were no other houses or lodgings anywhere I could see. After the chaos of Hanoi the calm and quiet was very welcome. It was our own little paradise—our own miniature Ha Long Bay. The stone mountains stuck out of the water in rounded points that reminded me of hands emerging from the deep.

Photo credit: Izzi McDonnell

After walking up and down the beach a couple of times, our toes digging into the sand, we decided to stay put, right where we were. Getting to Ha Long Bay would have meant getting in another taxi and another bus to take us there. We had less than 24 hours to enjoy the island and, although it meant missing the main attraction, we decided to relax and enjoy.

The hostel was an absolute dream. It was hard to tell who worked there and who was a guest because everyone hung out all together. Izzi and I joined in for a game of cards and then some pirate dice game that I don’t remember the name of, let alone the rules. The cans of cheap Hanoi beer were distributed through a tab system, so they were plentiful and we had soon made friends with the others. The hostel was home to a litter of puppies who loved to snuggle, the cherry on top of this perfectly comfortable place.

Photo credit: Izzi McDonnell

We lounged for a while in the pillows and tapestries, but after a while Izzi and I decided to explore a bit more. Woodstock actually had a kayak of its own named Simon (Garfunkel had recently been lost in the high tide) so after less than gracefully pulling it through the mud, we slid the boat and ourselves into the water. We spent a few hours pushing ourselves silently through the cove. Although it wasn’t raining (thank goodness) the sky was grey and the reflection of the clouds turned the water into melted silver.

One of the guys who worked at the hostel had told us about an old bunker left over from the war so, naturally, we went off in search of it. We managed to find it—it was the only metal door in the side of the rock—but after clambering up towards it and pulling hard on the handle, I realized it was locked. It wouldn’t budge a bit. I called down to Izzi to tell her that it was sealed shut, and I could hear my voice echo from inside the bunker. It sounded like a real adventure inside and all I wanted was to follow the sound of my voice into the tunnel. But it was not to be, so we continued our adventure on the water, stopping in the middle of the cove and sitting in silence.

That night we played more cards and drank more beer and eventually ended up in the middle of a big game of twister. I ended up winning, to my enormous surprise, and my prize was a shot of rice wine. It was my first one of the trip, but it certainly wouldn’t be my last. Not long after the shot I decided it was time for me to go to bed. The next day we were starting out journey towards Sapa so I climbed into my top bunk and fell soundly asleep, exhausted from the rejuvenating day.

Of course, seeing Halong Bay would have been amazing and we wouldn’t have missed it if we had just one more day. But sometimes you need moments like our day in Cat Ba while you’re traveling. You need to allow yourself a few opportunities to ignore the “must sees” and just be. Enjoy where you are, because even if it’s not on the TripAdvisor Top 10, it’s the first time you’ve ever been there, and will probably be the last. Plus, at least this way we weren’t contributing to the pollution caused by the tour boats in the water… right?

 

Note:

Have you noticed that some of the best pictures on this blog are credited to Izzi? She’s an absolutely amazing photographer. Do yourself a favour and follow her on Instagram! @izzixmcdn