Day 69 To Hội An
We're on a painfully early flight this morning, but fortunately have both paid our Phnom Penalty in full, so there's none of the teeth-clenching nervousness of the last one. Poor old Sam isn't out of the woods though. We learn by text that he was in a pharmacist last night trying to work around the unassailable language barrier ("J'ai un maladie de derriere") by vigorously miming his symptoms to a bemused chemist.
It is crapping it down in Đà Nẵng also. Literally, sheets of rain and opaque, thundery looking clouds. Much more like the UK in early January, which is quite an adjustment as the average temperature since we arrived on the continent has been mid-scalding. We've arranged for a taxi to pick us up (and have the thrill of seeing our surname held up on a placard at the arrivals gate), and the driver is a friendly chap called Le who tells us a bit about Đà Nẵng (one of the most important port towns in Vietnam, spans the enormous Han River) and then lots about his recent IVF treatment (it was successful thankfully, "because it cost so much money"). He expresses surprise that we don't have children and have chosen to spend our early 30s going on holiday rather than procreating. "If you lived here, people would talk. About what's wrong with your marriage."
We turn off the main road through busy streets of cyclists and scooters, past lush rice fields and farmers leading water-buffalo down the road. On a recommendation from my dad we're staying in the Hội An Chic, which turns out to be one of the best places of out trip. It's idyllic. There was some serious flooding in the region last monsoon season and there is a whiff of dampness about the place, but it's so picturesque it doesn't matter. Nestled amidst rice fields and a quiet farm with an unexpected (but heavily utilised) infinity pool above a glorious looking restaurant. The rain has eased and the sun is out, lending the landscape a glittery lustre. Because of the earliness of the hour (still not yet 9am) we are offered a gratis breakfast as well as our room for the day. And what a breakfast; the now-standard passionfruit onslaught kicks off a steamed bun, Pho and pastry extravaganza, while we sit watching cyclists amble past wearing the nón lá, the hat most associated with the region.
Such exhausting decadence along with the promptness of our start this morning has taken it right out of us. After dropping our bags in the room (and dispatching the swan towels) we fall onto the bed and sleep out the morning.
When we wake, we use the bikes (another perk of the hotel) to ride into the middle of town, a journey of two miles. The roads are nothing like the mayhem of Ho Chi Minh, but they're far from calm. We hug the right of the carriageway like limpets and crossing T junctions feels like a leap into the unknown. As with being a pedestrian, the only way of getting across is to look everyone in the eye, so that at the very least your terrified face haunts their dreams. You are granted an extra moment's grace before they hurtle past.
Hoi An town, like our hotel is stunning. It is protected by Unesco as an example of a well-preserved Vietnamese trading port, and by jingo, they have preserved it well. The Thu Bồn River which we cycle alongside was an important trading hub for the spice trade back in the Early Middle Ages. Some of the buildings which crop up along it now date back half a millennium, including the Japanese Bridge we stop and tie the bikes in front of.
The waterfront is stunning. We walk through town looking at the rainbow of lanterns above our heads, and the many, many suits we can have tailor-made here for next-to-no money. There is a bar on the river called Cargo Club which boasts enormous French pastries (a vocational gift from the colonialists) and a first floor (and first class) view of the river. We enjoy both before heading back to the hotel to change. The humidity is pretty close here, and we're in no state for public display after a few hours in it.
We've booked dinner in town for late evening in a restaurant whose double-entendre name I try and hold at bay ('Morning Glory' is also a type of regional spinach). The hotel, as another perk, offers a free taxi service every few hours in a couple of old US Army Jeeps, These make for a discordant drive in this most traditional of Vietnamese towns. Our dinner is excellent, and there's more Halong noodles, spiced pork, flame grilled vegetables and spring rolls. Chopsticks which I've struggled to master for years, are finally beginning to seem a little less alien in my clumsy sausage-fingers. Rounding it off is a world-class passionfruit crème brûlée (served IN the passionfruit - wizardry).
By a coincidence, we've arrived in town over the full moon, when Hội An hosts an internationally-renowned lantern festival. The river, therefore, is awash with glowing parcels floating gently downstream and the streets are illuminated in glorious colour. We have a warm riverside stroll to see off the night.
We're close to the sea again here, though the weather is not quite as inviting as it was in Nha Trang. The hotel told us yesterday of a 'secret beach' which sounds more exotic than we know it will be, but we've decided to cycle there nonetheless. A few hair-raising miles later, and we've tied up the bikes opposite a small restaurant along the beach.
We are sitting on deckchairs under coconut palm umbrellas. The sea is thundering in, but there are still people (all tourists) leaping around in the sea. In spite of the wind and clouds the temperature is warm, so it's more than agreeable laying and listening to the tide. About 50 metres to the left of us is a chap fixing up one of the small round basket boats which are a mainstay here (it might be called a Thung-chai) with what looks like a bucket of tar, while a chap to our right encourages us to buy a very realistic looking pair of Ray Bans. After getting sunburned through the clouds (honestly), we head back and into town. Here we do a spot of (timid) bartering to have a leather bag made replacing the one pilfered in Phnom Penh.
"When can we pick it up?"
"It'll be ready in five hours"
"Man alive, tomorrow evening will be fine thanks."
We do a further spot of hackneyed souvenir shopping to add our contribution to the local economy. The nón lá hats are going to be a pain to fit in the bags for the remainder of the trip. We cross the bridge at the east end of the old town to walk on the island the other side of the Thu Bồn river. There are painters and other vendors along here, all lending a street-market-buzz to the afternoon.
A few wrong turns take us down some side streets which are notably poorer than the rest of town but they still have smiling children waving cheerfully at us. We walk to the opposite bank of the island, and watch boats being repaired and fisherman begin to come in with their haul for the day. It's early evening by the time we head back towards town, and we find a popular-looking place on south side of the river which is heavily be-lanterned.
Another fine meal beckons with an accompanying draught IPA, no less. Suitably watered and fed by the time we are done, we head back through the multi-coloured streets watching the street performers, before heading to our jeep shuttle home.
Day 71 Cookery
A bright, fresh start this morning for some food-market shopping with Hon ("mention me by name on Trip Advisor") who's going to be showing us how to butcher some traditional Vietnamese recipes today. With a handful of other English tourists ("Phwoar, have a sniff of that cinnamon basil,") we walk around the central market in town as Hon collects handfuls of herbs and vegetables for his basket. "Fridges are rare in Vietnam," he explains, "so many people come down here each morning and buy their food for the day, every day. That's why everything tastes so fresh." He takes us in to an what looks like an abattoir, enormous joints of beef alongside pig's heads and organs of indeterminate beast. "Everything is killed today and sold today. There's nothing left at the end," Hon is saying, "so it doesn't smell of death and blood in here." He's right.
After we've collected our ingredients for the day, we hop on a knackered looking boat on the shore of the river, and start chugging upstream. The morning is good for it, as we putt past other small craft and their captains underneath fluffy clouds. There is a sudden explosive rattling from the engine below, and the boards above it leap into the air, terrifying the young chap who's sitting in front of them. My first thought is obviously, "Crocodile! We're all going to die!". Less dramatically (but gratefully) it turns out the fan-belt has come off, and is whipping the hull into a frenzy. The captain grimly cuts the power and, with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, drops down to the diesel-scented engine compartment. We are adrift on the Thu Bồn gently gliding back with the current. Hon appears unconcerned and checks his phone. Some moments of clattering and a grunt of satisfaction from the captain later, the engine starts hacking back into life. We're on our way again.
Presently we arrive at the shore where a short walk takes us to where we're cooking this morning. A large open building with only a roof, and tables and gas stoves set up ready. Before we begin, Hon explains how to make rice milk under a large grinding stone. He gets Ruth to demonstrate the grinding which is a process heavy on symbolism.
Hon dons a snappy chef's hat and runs through our menu. We start by preparing a beef Pho stock (which will only cook for a few hours but should be left for at least eight apparently) before having a crack at seafood spring rolls (with a first rate peanut sauce which I could drink by the pint glass), crispy beef noodles and pork pancakes.
Ruth and I critique each other's methods and presentation very unmaritally. All are delicious, and Hon is an excellent (and necessarily patient) tutor. He also does the classic chef trope of setting fire to a frying pan with little practical use, but extraordinary effect. We finish off our few hours of feasting with our now finished Pho.
Throwing as many chillis so as I can lay my hands on into mine, I ensure tomorrow will be another day of regret. It was an excellent few hours, quite aside from the fine food we ate, we can now also bore people rigid with our new culinary techniques ("Now if you want to be authentic..."). As a parting gift, Hon gives us a vegetable peeler which has a blade on it so sharp and unguarded it could easily strip flesh from bone. That's going to be an excellent gift for someone.
Back in Hội An we pick up our newly made rucksack (immaculate stitching) and continue to tick the stereotypes off our souvenir lists - calligraphy, chopsticks and kimonos. We have one last pastry alongside the river before heading back to the hotel, its infinity pool, and their generously proportioned margaritas.
We have dinner in the hotel this evening and watch the sun set over the rice paddies, whilst watching the chefs make considerably better versions of the dishes we thought we were now aces at.