Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Day Seven - Hue to Hoi An via the Hai Van Pass - Vietnam

We woke up early in our hotel in Hue and had a traditional Vietnamese breakfast of Pho Soup (beef noodle soup). I though it would be difficult adapting to having things like this for breakfast but I could easily carry on the tradition at home. At 9am our driver arrived who would be taking us the 100km to Hoi An via the Hai Van pass.

We started working our way out of Hue weaving like usual through the sea of mopeds on their way to work and the market. We passed a number of unusual loads today, the most notable being two guys on a moped with a number of panes of glass being carried between them which were over a meter high and wide. Our route followed the railway line which was the same train we got caught on our third night that links Hanoi with Saigon (Hoi Chi Minh City) stopping at various destinations on its way south.

The costal road that connects Hue with Hoi An is lined the whole way with locals houses, noodle bars, tile shops, bike repair sheds and shelters with a fridge and beer (the Vietnamese version of a pub) These 'pubs' are littered with men on small colourful plastic stalls gambling playing cards while the women go out and work. The same set up then repeats again mile after mile only being broken up by rivers or in areas where rice paddies extend to the road. Some houses are no more than sheets of corrugated iron on stilts while others resemble more of a home as we know it. These brick houses adopt the traditional Vietnamese style of architecture of a slim front facia with a narrow but long house extending back - not dissimilar to traditional houses you would find in Amsterdam. They are often ornately decorated, painted in beautiful colours and stand alone rather than being attached like in the city. The bigger the front door and longer the house the richer the inhabiters. These houses can be right next to tin shacks, you don't get a rich neighbourhood then poor villages, its one big melting pot here. I guess the differences in houses here represents the increasing divide between rich and poor but at least people seem to be sticking to the place they belong - probably due to the huge importance of family life to the Vietnamese.

Another thing I have noticed is how houses often have the front taken off but people still live normally in them. For example - the roads are being widened and extended here all the time as bigger trucks and an increased number of vehicles need to use them. Houses line the roads with the front doors opening straight onto the highway as I have mentioned. Instead of people moving away and houses being demolished if roads are being extended like we would expect at home - people just remove the front of their house to the new highway boundary and occupy the part that remains! In some places you therefore get houses that look like they have had the front taken off with a chainsaw which now expose everything inside. You see naked stairways that drop to the ground linking the various levels with dining and bedrooms just sitting open to the elements like a dolls house. Again, I guess that lack of money doesn't allow people to relocate if they are affected by something like this. On the other hand neither do they want to leave an area where their friends and family live resulting in them adapt to the situation as best they can.

The first thing of interest we passed was Dam Chau Hai a massive lagoon dotted with oyster farmers and fishing nets. The lagoon lies narrow running 180 km parallel to the coast finally opening up into a larger area in the south. Our driver stopped on a number of occasions on route to let us get out and have a closer look. We stopped at one point beside a heap of old moped tyres covered in the remains of shells. Our driver told us that they recycle the many moped tyres by cutting them in half and placing them over stakes positioned throughout the lagoon. Oysters then attach themselves to the tyres which harvester's can then pull out and take the oysters from. Makeshift stalls with brightly coloured bowls line the shore selling these fresh catches. Even the noodle bars here that line the highway are on stilts and set back on jetties in the lagoon.

At this point we were nearly at the Hai Van pass. At the end of the lagoon, where it opens out, the mountains that run along the west border with Laos reach out and meet the sea and have to be crossed to meet the city of Danang the other side. Previously all the hectic traffic had to filter along the hair pin bends up and over the mountains, what's known today as the Hai Van Pass. However with increasingly better infrastructure coming to Vietnam the road now runs over a steel suspension bridge crossing the lagoon into a tunnel that runs straight through. The railway also runs in and out of the mountain right by the coast line. As tourists we took the old pass which thankfully due to the tunnel sees very little traffic apart from tourists wanting to get up and see the magnificent views. From the top of the pass you can look north back over the beautiful lagoon and traditional fishing communities that survive there and to the south look over the city of Danang incomparable to any other city I have seen in Vietnam. Looking through the haze over to Danang you see sky scrapers reflecting the light, a large airport, ships entering the huge port and signs of modern industry everywhere. It's like they have no idea what lies behind the mountain just a few kilometres north of them.

As we drove down the other side of the mountain and made our way over and through Danang a whole new Vietnam was introduced to us. I guess you would call it the future, there's not a traditional brick Vietnamese home here and definitely no shacks! Instead high priced beach resorts and massive billboards line the coast enticing foreigners to invest in properties here boasting quotes of huge profits to be made from renting. Giant bridges cross the river one being a bright yellow Chinese dragon that links both sides along with other just as impressive bridges that sparkle in the light. The roads have curb stones here - no dusty borders and the traffic seems a little more organised and less hectic. Though there are still no rules at crossroads and traffic lights just seem to be there for decoration! The river has container ships moored to its banks and not a single wooden boat or traditional fisherman in sight. It's like entering an entirely different country for this stretch of the coast which I can't make any comparison with any other part of the country I've seen so far.

After leaving the city we went last marble mountain. This is a rock that is home to a sacred Buddha that sits in a beautiful building that clings onto the edge. Marble shops are everywhere with amazing statues carved of Buddhas and other figure. We didn't have to drive too much further before we entered Hoi An.

I had imagined Hoi An would not be dissimilar to Hue's old town but it's not. Instead it's a lot more vibrant and you are welcomed with streets full of colour and life. You can tell there's a lot more money here it's almost like the maturer older (but much much smaller) sister of Dannang that's not in so much of a race to modernise - she's happy where she's at. Sweet resorts that don't spoil the area crop up everywhere along with shops that sell souvenirs that are aimed at the increasing number of tourists that come to visit this town. Lanterns hang from trees and bars lining the streets which is much nicer than the modern street lamp. Tailors have all their creations on show enticing people to come in and try their products. Palaces, Pagodas and Tombs are mixed in with the scene but somehow the old and new seem to work together in harmony. Unlike in Hue where you have the divide of old and new making two contrasting towns either side of the river with the only thing they share being their name. The modern side of Hue reminds you more of a town like Benidorm than a tradition Vietnamese one.

Our driver took us to our beautiful hotel which is brand new but fits in well with its surroundings. It is located on one of the islands that sit in the river which is the heart of the town. You can rest by the pool or sit on the balcony and look out over the wide river that echoes the sound of rattling wooden fishing boats that choke their way up and down river from dusk till dawn.

We are in Hoi An for a coupe of days before we get our flight from Danang to Saigon. We decided to have lunch in our hotel then I had a facial in their new spa and we spent an hour relaxing in their almost unbearable hot but delightful infinity pool. We then went into town in search of tailors - by the time we had reached this part of town we had both over heated which meant for Jamie a slight change in mood. I sat him down in a local watering hole for an hour and the owner found him and ice cold beer and an ice cold glass - in minutes he was back to normal! In the time we had spent in the bar the evening had cooled off to a comfortable 30 degrees and we decided to check out the tailors. We fell into the first one was saw and after two young English guys who had just been back to collect their suits giving us great review we sat and looked through what they had to offer.

Jamie was instantly attracted to a duffle coat hanging outside and I loved the look of their women's winter coats (yes I did say it was thirty degrees but I'm always preparing for the British winter). We browsed through various different designs on the laptops that included two that are already in my wardrobe at home! We flicked through pages of D&G, Burberry, Marks and Spencer's, Next, Ralph Lauren - you name it - they have a copy pattern! Jamie got fitter for his duffle, suit trouser, jacket, waistcoat and shirt and me for a DKNY winter coat! After a few measurements and choosing fabrics and linings we were sat down for a quote (I knew we shouldn't have and those beers!). The whole lot came to about $500 - you can hardly get an off the shelf high street two piece suit in the UK for that let along everything we just ordered! We were tight for time so arranged fitting one at ten the following morning then another at midday for any necessary amendments. We would pick up either then or the day after on our way to the airport dependant on how many adjustments were needed.

We left the tailors and went back over the river to the island to find some dinner. A small night market was set up on the island selling everything from teapots to jewellery and everything in between. We picked up some gifts and chose a place for dinner. We now have so much stuff that a stop at the post office and a parcel with DHL is now necessary!

It's now 5am here as I reflect on yesterday's adventures and its cooler and the sun has just risen - I plan now to nip out and see this beautiful town for what it really has to offer without getting distracted along the way!

Location:Đường Hai Bà Trưng,,Vietnam

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