Hue to Hoi An: March 8 – 13, 2012
March 8: Fly from HCMC to Hue
Today we fly from HCMC to Hue with Vietnam Airlines I choose to fly with Vietnam Airlines for our domestic flights in Vietnam as I read on TA forum many problems with Jet Star. But today is not a good day for Vietnam Airlines. Our departure time changed twice, originally scheduled at 10:30 am changed to 11:30, then to 11:50am. Many other Vietnam flights are delayed due to technical problems and/or late arrival of planes to be used for new departures. Overhead, we keep hearing gates for departures on few flights being changed at the last minutes so we see hoards of passengers rushing from one gate to the other. Could not help but wonder, will it be safe to fly?
We arrive early at the airport so I wander around shops to kill time. Near the Sheraton Saigon Hotel, there’s an Ao Dai outfit I really want to buy. I find Ao Dai very elegant, feminine, and for sure I can find an occasion to wear it. But the print I loved does not fit me, it’s too small. I cannot believe that weight gain is finally catching up on me. Again, at the airport it is confirmed I’m no longer a petite I managed to stay for many decades. The shop at the airport sells Ao Dai’s for considerably less that the shop near Sheraton, but I cannot find a size that fits me. Is it really me, or Vietnamese women are so petite, skinny and slender their dress size is not same as American sizes? I wear only medium, but in Vietnamese standard , I need a large or extra large.
Our flight to Hue takes an hour and a half and there’s a drizzle of rain making the weather a bit cooler, a welcome change. The car driver I booked with Orchid Hotel ($12 usd) has been waiting for over an hour due to delayed departure. Orchid hotel does not have seating in their lobby, so we are quickly ushered to go in the breakfast area and given passion fruit juice and crackers. Our room is upgraded to a family room, no charge. The room is very spacious, with a double and single beds, average size bathroom and a balcony with a city view. What a deal for $35 usd per night including breakfast.
We find towels folded into animal shapes sitting on top of the bed. After settling in our room, we took a taxi to Citadel (32, 000 VND). At first, we want to take the cyclo, but hotel staff warns it will cost more. They also insist we could walk and take about 30 minutes from the hotel. So glad we did not take their advice as it will take us at least an hour to get there, with many rest stops due to hubby’s bad knee and legs. Citadel is opened until 5:00pm which gives us enough time to explore.
The “Purple Forbidden City” is where during the Nguyen Dynasty, the Emperor and his family lived. The structures and lay out is similar to Forbidden City in Beijing only much smaller. We look around, take photos and after 1 ½ hour decide to go to Dong Ba market. Eager to try a cyclo we talk to one guy who wants $6 usd for a distance of less than a mile. We end up taking a taxi and cost us only $1.00 usd. A cyclo is a bicycle fitted with a small seat in front, and despite being very small can fit up to 3 small people. It is powered manually, i.e, by pedaling like you would a bicycle so the driver must be physically fit and very strong. I see some passengers weighing at least 150 lbs being pedaled on a cyclo.
Dong Ba is like any Asian market, filled with many vendors selling fruits, vegetables, clothing, footwear, souvenirs; just about everything. I like visiting local markets as it is gives you an insight into the local’s culture and daily living. The smell of dried fish, aroma of foods cooking, locals enjoying their food sitting on small stools everywhere you look is fascinating, and so inviting I’m tempted to eat the street foods, but know better. Besides my hubby will not let me, he’s more cautious. Alas, in this market I find an Ao Dai outfit that fits me, a red brocade satin top and bought two pairs of pants (red & white) since I cannot make up my mind which color Material not of high quality (silk) but this will do for I’d probably wear it only once. Now, I need to find one for my hubby to match my outfit.
March 10: Hue to Hoi An
I pre-arranged with Stop & Go Travel a private car transport to Hoi An plus a city tour in the morning. ($80 usd) on motorbikes and also requested Mr Bi to be our driver per TA recommendation. Since it’s raining this morning, I called Stop & Go to request a car instead of motorbike for our tour this morning as No problem, just pay $10 usd more. We quickly run to a store to buy umbrellas before Mr Bi arrives at 8:30am This turns out to be a better arrangement as we do not have to go back to the hotel to pick up our luggage after the morning tour had we gone on motorbike. And Mr Bi did not disappoint, he speaks very good English and gives brief information of places we visit. He also takes us to a gold shop to get better exchange rate for dollars into Dong ($1 usd = 20,700 VND)to pay for entrance fees to museums and places we will be visiting in the afternoon.
First stop is Thien Duc Pagoda, and the drive along Perfume River to get here is lovely. There is a beautiful garden or park that runs alongside the river with many varieties and colorful flowers planted.
Next stop, is a visit to Incense making village. The process involves covering one end of the stick with clay; then dipping it for scents into ground cinnamon, sandalwood, etc; and finally dyed to match its scent such as brown for cinnamon. Buddhists use incense a lot at their temples, and burn them when honoring the dead.
Then we go see Tru Doc Temple, an older temple, simple structures, lake and trees which gives one a feeling of peace, calm and serenity. Mr Bi gives us half an hour to look around here. The rain has not stopped so we are glad we bought umbrellas to keep us from getting wet while visiting temples and tombs. It’s very interesting to see colorful ponchos as motorbikes and bicycle drivers take cover from rain which has not stopped. We even get to see a funeral procession where they are throwing fake money, I forget what it’s supposed to symbolize or mean.
Mr Bi then takes us to Vonh Canh Hill where we see bunkers used by Americans during Vietnam war. It’s a beautiful forest and once on top you get a view of the Perfume river.
For our last stop before we head to Hoi An is Khan Dinh Tomb. Of the two tombs we visited, this is more impressive. It is built much later, very ornate, with elaborate carvings , colorful stones on columns and walls; artful painting on the ceiling. There’s a replica of the Emperor sitting on his throne (in gold or painted?).
Our tour of Hue is done and we head to Hoi An, making a stop for lunch at a restaurant with a view of Lang Cao beach. Food is good, but quite expensive and gives small portions, but excellent service. We ordered grilled shrimp, grilled oysters, stir fried water spinach and fried rice. The waitress peeled the shells off the shrimps; she takes oysters off the shell and put into paper-thin rice paper, added some greens and makes it into a spring rolls and hand it over to us one by one. We dip into some type of sauce, yummy. I think anything they make into spring rolls tastes really good especially when eaten with a dipping sauce. The water spinach or Morning Glory when stir fried with garlic and a small amount of oyster sauce is our favorite vegetable dish. The crunch and flavor lingers on your taste buds with every bite. You must try this dish.
As we approach Hai Van pass, Mr Bi is concern we may not be able to go thru the pass. Weather is getting bad, it’s raining and foggy, with very limited visibility. He thinks it is dangerous under this condition to go thru the next 20 km of the pass, that is winding up and down. For our safety, we should go thru the tunnel, and avoid the Hai Van pass. But with luck on our side midway thru the pass, visibility improved and he assess it’s OK. The drive over the pass is so beautiful, clouds hovering over the mountain top, and view of China beach peeking thru as cloud rolls in and out. and Farther down we catch a glimpse of Danang city from a distance. It’s awesome, I’m glad we did not miss this scenic drive.
Danang is the third largest city in Vietnam. It’s brand new International airport opened last December, 2011. Despite many luxurious 5 star hotels and villa built (and being built) many tourists do not stay here. They use Danang just to get to Hoi An. It’s main and only attraction is the beach which is more beautiful than the ones in Hoi An. There’s so much growth, development and building of big, expensive resort hotels and villas being sold with starting price of $500,000 USD. An Australian company is opening a golf course next to the luxurious accommodation. It is certainly a playground for the rich and famous. Our tour guide mention some of the buyers of villas here are relatives of the high-ranking goverment officials. Tourist, who are mostly Japanese, prefer to stay in Danang for its big, nice and luxurious hotels as opposed to mainly small boutique-style accommodations in Hoi An.
We reach Marble Mountain, and glad they now have an elevator to get up even if we have to pay each way to use it On top there’s a Buddhist Pagoda, view of China beach and of the other two Marble mountains. There’s also lots of souvenir shops selling small, real size and giant-sized Buddhas in white, brown, yellow and jade color. A quick stroll of the Cham museum, a visit to a Silk Shop and we finally get to our hotel in Hoi An, Ving Hung 3 Hotel. It’s been a very long day and we are exhausted!
March 11: Hoi An
I booked our hotel with Agoda.com and get room (#025) in the back with view of small garden so we don’t get much street noise as requested.
Once again there is a last-minute change to our original plan as we want to join Taste of Hoi An Food tour, but it is already fully booked for today, but has openings for next day. I call Vinh from “Love of Life” tour if we can change our plans and go today on our motorbike tour instead of tomorrow. Yes we can, so we are happy we can do both tours. The Countryside tour is normally offered riding a bicycle for about 10km on mostly flat, easy terrain, but with concerns about our physical fitness and stamina, its best to go on a motorbike. Their charge for tour on bicycles is $19 usd per person, and $ 25 usd on motorbike. The tour takes us to a pottery making village, herb farm, rice fields where we saw water buffalos; shrimp farms and fishing village; a visit of a Buddhist temple. At the lantern making shop, I purchase five pieces although I have no idea how I can carry or fit them in our luggage.
At the end of our tour, Vinh takes us to Café 43 for lunch which is included in the price. He takes liberty of ordering for us: pineapple mango juice, papaya salad, squid stuffed with pork, fried battered shrimp, chicken cooked with lime & chile, and the best banana pancake for dessert. There’s so much food, yet we devoured them all as everything is quite delicious. Best part of the tour for me!
As far as the tour is concern, it’s a nice escape from the city and change of sceneries. But I’m not overly excited like others who gave it excellent review in TA. I wish our tour guide is more engaging and takes the initiative to talk or give information on places we see as we pass thru them.However, he’s very animated when he was talks about Buddhism, and we learned a lot. If you have time you should go for it.
After the tour, we spend the afternoon exploring Ancient Town; purchase tickets that allow entrance to 5 attractions in Ancient town. Negotiated a price to go on a cyclo tour around Ancient town for $3 usd. Warning! After the driver agreed on our price, as we are climbing into his cyclo he says $3 usd per person. Said never mind, then he says OK $3 usd for two. We manage to see only 3 attractions: the Japanese Bridge, an ancient house over 100 years old, a Temple. Found a shop after crossing the Japanese bridge that gives reasonable prices for many things; I bought many items from her. Hubby is tired so we walked back to our hotel.
March 12: Hoi An
Pick up time from our hotel for the “Taste of Hoi An” tour is at 8:30am which gives us little time to eat breakfast. Neville, the owner and our guide, is excellent. He’s very knowledgeable about foods and can tell many great jokes, and talk about history. He takes guests on a walking tour of the market and streets to meet local vendors, while tasting some foods along the way.
The black elixir locals drink to make them feel strong and healthy works wonders for my sore throat. I feel better after drinking a cup of this during our tour.
For finale, he takes us back to their private dining room in the Ancient Town to taste carefully chosen examples of food bought directly from the vendors whom we see or meet on the tour. We tasted the best foods from local secret places and tasted around 40 different types of foods; mostly sample bites but enough to fill you up. I highly recommend this tour especially if you’re into foods, or a foodies. The cost of $40 usd per person is definitely money well spent
The youngest in our group, is a 9-year old beautiful girl from Australia, who amaze us all for she eats and tastes all that is presented to us. She also play assistant to Neville during the tour so he promised her a lifetime free tour whenever she is in Hoi An.
We manage to be back at our hotel in time for the 2:30 appointment at Hoi An Day Spa. Since we decide not to have custom tailored clothes made and not do much shopping, we have time for much-needed pampering from head to toe. I book a combo package treatment which includes a 30 minute body scrub, 60 min full aromatherapy massage, manicure & pedicure for myself; and a 60 min foot reflexology and 70 min full aromatherapy massage for my hubby. All that treatments for both of us, cost less than $80 usd, what a deal!
Definitely go here for massage and ask for Pauline, I guarantee you will be delighted. I even came back later this evening for a rejuvenating facial, after our cooking class ended at 8:30pm. The spa stay opened and waited for me.
The Cooking class I signed up for is not as promised that it will take place in a private home. Instead, us and another couple are taken to the back of a restaurant in Ancient town. It also is not hands on, but more of a cooking demo. For $25 usd per person, I’m sure there are much better choices as there’s . There are four dishes in our demonstration: stuffed squid, pork cook with lemongrass & chilies, tuna cooked in a clay pot, and stir fried water spinach. Being adept in cooking, I’m sure I can duplicate these dishes as they all require simple ingredients that would be available in California.
Certainly today is the best day we’ve had so far in Vietnam, pure day of pleasure and enjoyment.