Da Nang Part 2 and Hoi An!

A haiku:

Air conditioning,

You are so close to my heart.

It’s so f—ing hot.

Geography lesson: the closer you are to the Equator, generally the warmer temperatures are. My adventures in Da Nang and Hoi An are case studies in this principle, and my sweat-drenched shirts are evidence. I’m starting to acclimatize though! Rather than feeling hot all the time and sweating all the time, I only feel hot around 36C/96F. I am still constantly sweating.

I didn’t let the heat get in the way of enjoying my time in south-central Vietnam.

DA NANG

After wandering the streets of Da Nang on Sunday, I took a bit more assertive action the rest of the trip the most of my time. I visited the Cham Museum, which holds a large collection of stone sculptures of the Cham ethnic group. The Cham dominated a large part of central and southern Vietnam dating as far back as 3rd century CE.

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All of the statues were taken from Mỹ Sơn, a collection of Champa temples and UNESCO World Heritage site located only 70km/43mi from Da Nang, so the city offers lots of tours to the ancient ruins.
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I forked out the extra 20,000 Dong (about 80 cents) for a headset that gave wonderful audio descriptions of the pieces. And to think I’ve mocked my mother for the doing the same thing!

I also rented a motorbike to check out Bodhisattva of Mercy, AKA Lady Buddha.

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Entrance from the parking lot.

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Lots of ornate statues and sculptures fill the pagodas, as did people offering prayers.
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Evokes visions of Christ the Redeemer in Rio (or the photos I’ve seen, at least).
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One of the many pagodas at the top of the mountain.
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The courtyard full of Buddha statues.
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The view from the top of the mountain. Good view of Da Nang, the South China Sea, and what soldiers in the Vietnam War called China Beach.

I also checked out Han Market, which was kind of like typical Vietnamese market meets Reading Terminal Market:

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Stall after stall of hanging meat.
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Lots of fresh seafood.

IMG_2957Staying in a hostel gave me ample opportunity to meet other travelers (and the little guy on the left. The hostel had three resident pups). Since my time in Dong Hoi is spent mostly around people whose language I don’t speak and people in the 30-55 age range, it was a real treat to spend time around other peer English speakers. The largest group of travelers were part of a Christian mission trip called the World Race. The Racers had to raise support before embarking on an 11-month, 11-country journey during which they build schools and churches, work in cafes designated for locals to practice English (their assignment in Da Nang), and perform other various services. They had been in Da Nang for a few weeks, so they showed me all the best places to eat (a huge concern of mine). Check out one of their blogs if you want!

I also met two friends from Ireland on summer holiday, a fellow recent college grad from Boston trying to figure out what’s next, and a young couple from the UK who has been traveling together for fourteen months(!). Da Nang was okay, but at the end of the day it’s a just another big city. Most travelers seem to use it as a recharge point before heading to bigger destinations like the party town of Nha Trang in the south or to Hanoi in the north.

Tuesday morning was dedicated to watching the Buckeyes game. Thanks to Rose of the World Race for keeping me company in the common room, to the Internet for allowing me to stream the game and watch it live, and to my most consistent game watch buddy Caroline for keeping her phone on her so we could text our excitement and frustrations throughout the game. Proof that a good game watch buddy relationship transcends time zones and space.

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Alex and Gemma, the UK couple, were heading to Hoi An on the same day as me, so we trekked to the bus stop together and quizzed each other about our respective countries on the 45 minute ride. We rolled in around 2:30PM.

HOI AN

Hoi An is a beautiful city – the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage city – and a really hot tourist destination. It reminded me of a blend of Disney World and Charleston. Part romance, part overpriced crap, filled with backpackers and couples in their 40s and 50s looking for a getaway.

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Visitors could purchase these lanterns for 10,000 VND and make a wish by dropping them into the river with a long pole.
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Street of lanterns at night.
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Hoi An Celebration Bridge. This was the spot to take photos. Made it hard to cross.

Everything in Hoi An seemed just seemed nicer – the chopsticks were more uniformly shaped, the napkins were softer, the streets were cleaner, the sidewalks were navigable for your average perambulator. Motorbikes and taxis were barred from entering the Ancient City (where all the cool stuff is), which provided a welcomed relief from the constant cacophony of beeping and revving. Street food stalls were largely replaced by restaurants with tablecloths, A/C, and menus advertising food from around the world.

I tried a lot of regional specialties, including the banh mi stand that Anthony Bourdain claims makes the best sandwiches in Vietnam. The banh mi was good, but saying it’s the best bahn mi is like saying it’s the best ham sandwich. It’s good, sure, but at the end of the day, it’s still bahn mi.

I also saw this as my last opportunity in a while to eat a few different types of food, so I took full advantage.

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Went to Tex-Mex place called Green Chili. Holy shit real sour cream. And cheese in the chimis. Oh I was so happy.

Now, you might be saying, “You’re in Vietnam and you ate Mexican food?! Why would you do that? You’re in Vietnam!”

First, this is not your trip. You are not me. If I want to eat Mexican food, I’m going to eat Mexican food. Second, I live here! I eat Vietnamese food every single day, and I’ll do that for the next several months. So I wanted a break. Third, if you know me at all, you know how much I love Mexican food, so eating Mexican food should never come as a surprise, regardless of where I am in the world. Finally, I don’t know when I’ll be able to eat Mexican food again, so I had to do while I could.

I also ate at an Indian restaurant call Ganesh, which had Indian food that rivaled Uma’s chole (it was crazy good, in other words). Makes sense though, as Hoi An is 5500mi/8850km closer to Mumbai than Columbus is.

The storefronts were filled with tailor shops. Hoi An is home to somewhere close to 500 tailor shops, all boasting the best custom suits, dresses, jackets, shoes, and pretty much any other type of clothing you might want to have made. The options are staggering, so I turned to the trusty Internet for help (why do my own research when it’s all been done for me?). I ended up going to Miss Forget Me Not, a little shop run by sisters that came highly recommended by several strangers on the Web.

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About a quarter of the fabric choices they had.

The process was lots of fun – picking out my fabric, looking at different designs, choosing the jacket lining color, going through several fittings to make sure everything fit perfectly (great motivation to stay fit) and was made to my liking, being doted on, getting told I have a “nice ass” by one of the sisters (highlight of the trip). I went in planning on getting two suits. I ended up with two suits, three shirts, and three ties. When in Hoi An, I guess!

The rest of my time in Hoi An was spending wandering around. The streets are lined with vendors selling shirts, handmade goods, lanterns, and other various souvenirs. Nearly everyone in Hoi An speaks English, so talking down prices was a lot easier than in the Dong Hoi market (I’m still working on mastering the art of the “walkaway”…I’m too soft to commit!).

I grabbed dinner with Alex and Gemma Friday night (after randomly running into them in Hoi An on Tuesday), which was a perfect cap to the trip.

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A (unfortunately blurry and grainy) photo of Alex, me, and Gemma. They would travel for a bit, then go to Australia and work on farms to earn money, then travel for a bit more. Really cool couple with a good outlook on life and great stories. Glad I got to meet them.
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Hoi An seemed to be working really hard to develop their bar scene. They had a street of just bars, and each one had incessant flyer distributors begging us to have a drink at their place. Specials were crazy too: $5 all-you-can-drink, buy 1 get 2 drinks free, and free buckets are what I remember off the top of my head. This was a gin and tonic bucket. Just a really big gin and tonic. It was drinkable.

Saturday morning it was back to Da Nang to catch the train to Dong Hoi. The train ride back went by quickly. I had some work to do for my upcoming classes, and I was on the South China Sea side of the train so the scenery was a lot more enjoyable.

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Greens and blues as far as I could see. Not sure what city that is in the back right.
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Trying to figure out how to get to this private beach.

I got back to Dong Hoi around 7:45PM and was back to the hotel by 8PM. Just enough time to grab a bowl of pho (can you believe I went a week without a bowl?!) and get inside before a big storm rolled through.

Overall, the trip was remarkably inexpensive. Keep in mind I did some major splurging in Hoi An at restaurants and the hotel, but here is the breakdown of my expenses:

Train round trip – 412,000 VND/18.34 USD

Taxi to and from train station – 127,000 VND/5.65 USD

Bus between Da Nang and Hoi An – 80,000 VND/3.6 USD

Museum entries – 65,000 VND/ 2.89 USD

Motorbike rental/fuel – 125,000 VND/5.56 USD

Da Nang Backpackers Hostel, 3 nights – 605,000 VND/26.93 USD

Nhi Trung Hotel in Hoi AN, 3 nights – 1,200,000 VND/54 USD

Food – 1,150,000 VND/51.75 USD

Drinks – 200,000 VND/8.90 USD

TOTAL: 4,164,000 VND/185.34 USD

I didn’t include my clothing purchases, but the suits were $130 each, shirts were $18 each, and ties were $5 each, for anyone curious.

I learned enough from my week of travel to fill a short book. I’m too verbose as is, so I’ll try to keep it condensed. (If anyone has even a lick of international travel experience, solo or not, let me know if I’m wrong. These are also in a very general order of personal discovery.)

  1. The obvious advantage of solo travel is I get to do as I please. If I want to spend the day walking around a city, I can do that. If I want to stop and eat, or duck into an alley, or only spend twenty minutes at a museum and take off, I can do that. I enjoyed the independence.
  2. Solo travel allows me to travel much more quickly than I realized. No more waiting for the group to shower, discussing where to eat, wandering around museums at the pace of your slowest group member. Those are obvious things. The less obvious thing to me was how much time is spent just being in a group. Groups tend to walk slower. Trips to restaurants take up more time because it takes longer to cook more food. People socialize while they’re eating. One member of the group really wants to stop for a coffee, so the whole group stops.
  3. Quick travel and freedom are good, but I need to plan accordingly. I crossed out most of my to-do list in Da Nang in a day and a half, but I booked my hotels and train tickets planning on moving at a slower pace  I now know that when traveling through Southeast Asia, it’s smarter to book accommodations and travel a day or two in advanced to give myself more flexibility. I felt like I should always be out exploring, seeing things, engaging. I felt a little guilty sitting around at times. But I also learned that…
  4. Downtime is okay. If I want to sleep until 10, walk around for a few hours, and then watch a movie, that’s okay. Not in every city “can you do half a million things, all at a quarter to three” (thank you Huey Lewis). Big city does not always mean lots of big things to do. When I had crossed everything off my list, I went on a self-guided street food tour and read at a coffee shop for a while and that was fulfilling.

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    This guy helped me order at a street stall. He totally knew we were taking a picture, by the way.
  5. The final, and probably most important, thing I learned is that it’s not about what you’re doing, it’s about who you’re with. I’ve heard this adage from lots of travelers, and it really came to life to me on this trip. I loved being able to move at my own pace and have the freedom of a solo traveler, but I was also searching for others to share in the experience. I’ll remember the Dragon Bridge and Hoi An at night and other sights, but what made the trip worthwhile was conversations and memories, however brief, with the other travelers. The typical brevity of travelers’ relationships allows for an openness and sincerity that is hard to find elsewhere. I know I’ll probably never see these people again, a melancholy reality considering how much enjoyable our time was together. But walls come down quicker and conversations are deeper and more genuine with this knowledge in mind; we have less incentive to twist our personalities or hide parts of ourselves. We learn a lot about each other, sure, but I think we also learn a lot about ourselves.

OKAY that got really cheesy really quickly so I better stop writing before I get booed off screen.

The trip really was fantastic. A great practice run for traveling after the conclusion of my teaching tenure.

And speaking of teaching tenure, Sunday afternoon was test day for the class I’ll be teaching! (Before that, I would like to mention to peacock my dedication and loyalty, I  woke up at 2:30AM to watch the Ohio State game.) I proctored their exam (extremely boring, consisted of walking around the room and glaring at people when they openly cheated. But they’re adults and not getting graded, so their loss I guess). After the test, we all went out for dinner and drinks. Lots of rice vodka shots (everyone wanted to have a drink with the new guy) and when I stopped drinking vodka, lots of forced beers chugged (“Bottom’s up!” they would say, to my protesting. Thankfully Vietnamese beer is pretty weak). Plates of squid, pork innards, wild boar, and venison made their way around the 35 of us in the restaurant. Not a bad celebration.

Official teaching starts soon!! I’m excited to move away from vivid descriptions of mundane daily activity to actually writing about the reason I’m here.

Thanks for reading!

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