Monday, 30 April 2018

Vietnam, day 18: Mounting the Marvellous Mountains Most Marbelous

Hoi An, Vietnam
31 May, 2017
Anticipating a long day ahead of us, we made a beeline for Hoi An Roastery to tuck into some much needed breakfast. 
Yannick indulged in a coconut ice cream coffee with a side of croissant, while I had my customary green tea.
It was still rather early, and there was hardly anyone else out and about. We managed to find the hotel that Bridget and Jance were staying in, and were seated in the foyer in grand carved wooden chairs to await the tour guide for our trip to the Marble Mountains! Shortly, we were greeted by our guide, who was called Snail, and ushered into the van to begin the drive.

Though mainly uneventful, the last ten minutes or so of the drive provided brilliant views of the sea. 

The Marble Mountains are a cluster of five pinnacles, each named after one of the elements (fire, water, earth, wood, and metal). Our tour began at Thuy Son, the water mountain. The stone steps leading up the mountainside were steep and narrow, and I tried my best to pretend that my breathing was no heavier than normal to keep up appearances of (nonexistent) fitness.

Before I was able to catch my breath, it was dashed away even more by the breathtaking pagoda that was nestled amongst the cliffs and trees. Allegedly some of the pagodas on Thuy date back to the seventeenth century, though I'm not sure which ones. The detail of the designs and the brilliant green roof tiles were stunning.

Legend has it that long ago, a dragon emerged from the sea and laid an egg. After a thousand days and nights, the egg hatched to reveal a beautiful woman. She fucked off somewhere [citation needed], but the egg shell fragments grew and became the five mountains of Marble fame. Doncha just love myths? They're so weird! You can't make this shit up. (Or can you?)

Across a nearby moat was a lil gazebo which contained a statue of the Lady Buddha. We'll be seeing more of her later.

Then Snail led us into a cave! You'd think that might take a while, but he was a speedy terrestrial pulmonate gastropod mollusc (#teamsnail). The air was clouded with incense, and statues of various worship-worthy historical and spiritual figures loomed from the swirling vapours. It was nice to be able to escape inside a cave for a bit, as the temperatures had reached nearly 40C and we were sweating profusely. 

Continuing up the extremely narrow stairs and scrambling through a crack in the rock (loftily named the Gate of Heaven) we emerged into daylight at the summit of the mountain! While gazing up at the glorious pagoda, we were bewildered by a strange barking noise which sort of sounded like animal noises played through tinny speakers. Upon inspecting the rocky pool that the sounds were emanating from, we discovered that there were in fact no low quality speakers, but rather actual frogs. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn't have believed that frogs could make those croaks. 

See! Those mountains totally look like eggshells right? Right. 

Next up was an archway that led to a sun-dappled walkway and a shrine. There was a gaggle of schoolchildren in this area, and some were whispering between themselves and glancing at me. The one with the most courage approached me and asked if she could take my photo. We posed for a selfie, and then the floodgates opened and I was inundated by the rest of the group lining up to take photos with me as well! I'm not entirely sure why they wanted my photo, but I did feel like I finally achieved my fifteen minutes of fame. Now I shall sink into insignificance for the remaining three quarters of my life.

Heading back inside the mountain, we stopped amongst a circle of shrines to learn many facts. I answered some pop quiz questions correctly and received many high fives! #teamsnail. We rubbed a lucky Buddha's belly and then trekked down a lot of stairs to reach the tour van. The stairs were very jungly and we were surprised by a couple of huge centipedes snaking their way along the steps. 

When I say huge, I mean huge. It was twice as long as a stapler, and not those mini neon-coloured ones that girls had in high school. According to Snail, they're not an indigenous species, and were brought to Vietnam to be used as fishing bait. As with most introduced species, their populations became a bit out of control (lookin' at you, gorse). They are venomous, causing dizziness and fever in humans, and death in small mammals.

From there, we were driven to a so-called marble factory, which just seemed to be a tourist shop filled with statues. As the Marble Mountains contain (surprise surprise) marble, as well as limestone, the purchase of ornaments constitutes a large portion of tourist spending. Whether these statues were made with marble from the area, or even marble at all, I was dubious of. A more cost-effective method would be to bulk import from a cheap seller and then pass the statues off as artisanal. After using the factory's toilet, we popped down the road to a noodle shop where we were provided with lunch. Snail was very nice, and made sure that I got a special tofu dish rather than the meat options that everyone else got. Sadly, it was then time to bid farewell to Snail, and we joined #teamturtle.

Unfortunately I'm sketchy on the details of this next part, but we saw another cave (Am Phu) with shrines and the like. Team Turtle was double the size of our last tour group, and we found the info less interesting so we wandered a bit away from the others. This cave had been designed to signify the eighteen levels of hell, and strangely enough (from what I can tell online) Am Phu resides inside Thuy Son. I'm not sure why we didn't visit Am Phu before lunch, when we were right there at the same mountain! But anyway, the decorations seemed much more gaudy, with neon lights and badly crafted figures. Turtle was telling stories for a long time, and we became very bored. The best part of visiting Am Phu was punching a gong we found. Perhaps we unknowingly summoned a demon. Once we all piled back into the van to move onto the next destination, Turtle asked if anyone had seen Bob. After a frantic search of the carpark, Bob the old Aussie dude turned up and we were able to carry on, resting assured that no one had been kidnapped or lost in the depths of hell. 

Further along the coast, we alighted at Monkey Mountain, where an enormous statue of the Lady Buddha was being spray-painted by two workmen (if you look closely you can see them suspended from long ropes near the hem of her robe).

We wandered about the courtyards and the temple, where I was once again asked to pose for a photo. This time I posed with a whole family, and felt a bit out of place. How would they explain who I am to people looking at the photo? Am I now immortalised forever on this family's mantlepiece, smiling on Monkey Mountain with strangers? It was a fairly surreal experience. As Yannick enjoyed an ice cream, we gazed out over the countryside and the South China Sea.

Later that evening, we emerged napped and showered from our hotel ready for dinner. Attempting to procure a table at Ms Ly 22, we were informed that they were very busy, and that we could return in twenty minutes. We took the opportunity to wander about Hoi An some more, and see all the beautiful lanterns.

Dinner was well worth the wait! I chowed down on a green papaya salad that was super delicious (and made with soy sauce rather than fish sauce - yay!), while Yannick sampled two local specialties: white rose, and Cao Lao, a Japanese-style noodle dish with pork and croutons. Seeing that they offered the Ancient Hoi An cocktail, we felt obliged to order one! Oddly, it was very different from the one we had the night before, but still extremely tasty. It was a lovely ending to a long day. 

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Vietnam, day 17: Liberating Cuba, One Drink at a Time

Hoi An, Vietnam
30 May 2017
On our second day in Hoi An, we had a slow start to the morning with a stroll. 
We were still unaccustomed to seeing so many attractive lanterns, and took too many photos accordingly.

For breakfast, we stopped at Espresso Station, where I enjoyed a refreshing strawberry lemonade, and Yannick had (can you guess?) ca phe sua da. From what I could tell, a speciality of the café was some sort of terrifyingly black and grainy drink that coated the teeth of those who were drinking it, making them look completely rotten.

Next up, we ran an errand! How un-holidayish. Except that it was a very holidayish errand, being that we were sending off a postcard to a loved one. The post shop itself was in a very old building, with a carved wooden ceiling and vintage fixtures.

Continuing our wanderings, we crossed the bridge to Cam Nam, the island that neighboured the one our hotel was on. The day was becoming very hot, and wasn't helped by the fact that a street we walked down had no shade, and many people were burning fake money by the roadside (so that their ancestors would have cash to blow in the afterlife). Fruit and flowers had been laid out along the way, and we saw that rice, candies and confetti had been thrown about, leading us to believe that perhaps there had been some sort of ceremony earlier that morning. Pathways off the main road led past houses down to the river, where locals moored their boats. There was more foliage by the river, which helped a little bit with the scorching sun, and we saw a beetle! It was bright blue, but in that metallic way that some bugs are.

As we walked further from the bridge leading to the old town, the more rural Cam Nam became, and we came across a greater proportion of fishermen, dirt paths, and trees (here's a jackfruit tree!). Eventually, we decided to turn back and the walk along the main, sun-soaked road felt like it took forever.

Crossing back into the old town, we passed by a few temples and found that the area just north of Cam Nam has a very French colonial feel, with the distinctive mustard-coloured buildings.

Like this!

Happening upon a tea shop, we were offered a free tasting and I jumped at the opportunity. The tea was quite delicate and fragrant, and even Yannick didn't mind it! (As he is a staunch tea-hater, that means that it was great tea.) I bought a lemongrass tea for Sue, one of our friends and former house sit hosts back in London.

Needing some sustenance and a break from the sun, we lunched at Karma Waters, a tiny vegan cafe. I opted for the burger, while Yannick slurped up a pho. The cafe's toilet was located in their back garden in an outhouse, and had no running water (only a bucket of water to pour in as a 'flush' function). We wandered around randoms streets some more on the way back to our hotel for a siesta. 

Dem lanterns, tho!
So aesthetic.

Some time later, we took a taxi to the beach: Bai Bien Cua Dai. After a brief episode of staring around helplessly, we found Bridget and Jance, and set off along the beach in search of a suitable hang out location. At regular intervals were different sets of beach chairs with umbrellas and little tables, each owned by a bar. Well...I say was more like a shack with one lady inside. We made our choice based solely on the fact that the lady seemed genuinely nice (and when you have so much choice, you kind of just have to pick one because weighing up the pros and cons of each would take far too much time). Each chair was 20,000VND, and we picked a few cocktails from the menu. It was my first time trying a banana daiquiri! Yannick was able to order his favourite cocktail: the Cuba Libre. When Bridget hired a towel from the beach shack lady, she sprinted off and over a dune, and we theorised that she may have been running to her home for unforeseen supplies. After all, with all that booze in the shack how could there be space for towels? After a while of lounging and watching the others swim, I saw a man leap into one of those small circular boats (a coracle). He used an oar, but not in the usual way. He kind of just wiggled it from side to side in a way that I thought was doomed to fail, but somehow was very effective! He clearly knows more about the physics of oars than I do.

With our beach itch scratched, we walked back towards the beach entrance and were surprised to find that it was swarming with beach-goers! Presumably, late afternoon was when all the locals flocked to the beach for a swim, just as we had experienced on Con Son island.

Finding a larger beachside bar (one that wasn't a shack), we ordered smoothies and milkshakes and rinsed the sand off our feet from a plastic water barrel.

Catching a taxi back to the old town, we wandered around some more (the crowds were out here too!).

A small night market had been assembled, and one guy on a motorbike flashed past us precariously balancing a tray of full soup bowls. He had to dodge so many people, and the soup was sloshing around a lot. Not your typical delivery service.

Dem lanterns, tho!!

For dinner, we met up with Bridget and Jance again and were the sole patrons of The Little Menu. The owner was a swell guy and waited on us hand and foot, recommending dishes to us as well as the Ancient Hoi An cocktail, which was delightful! I can safely say that it's in my Top 5 list of cocktails. I wish I could remember what was in it, but all I can say for certain was that it contained rum and passionfruit juice. We ate well, and after our meal the owner came over with a tray of chilled face cloths rolled up and declared them to be spring rolls! He had been cracking jokes all evening, which made the experience memorable.

We bid adieu to our friends, knowing that we would be seeing them early the next morning for an exciting expedition!
(Dem lanterns tho amiright?)

Monday, 26 March 2018

Vietnam, day 16: Ahoy, Hoi An!

Hoi An, Vietnam
29 May 2017
Early that morning, we arrived in Hoi An! However, as the main bus depot was a little far away from the centre, we caught a local bus. 
And let me say that this was by far the most bizarre bus ride I have ever undertaken, all because of one man: the bus driver's assistant. I don't recall ever being on board a bus with an assistant before, but this bus had one! Before departing, he lit some incense on the bus' dashboard shrine. He took it upon himself to tell passengers which seat they should take, and where to place their belongings. Often throughout the ride when passengers disembarked and new passengers boarded, he would rearrange people. On several occasions he snatched up his trusty bottle of window cleaner and sprayed it all over the inside of the windshield - including in front of the driver! He sprayed so much that it dripped down in thick rivulets, and then didn't wipe it off, instead leaving it to slide down the glass by itself. He fussed over everything: folding and refolding some little towels he had, messing about with a USB stick to make the tiny TV play K-Pop music videos without sound, hanging an umbrella in different places around the bus, poking a fan to make sure it was still working, and "helping" people as they exited (though it looked rather a lot like mandhandling-cum-shoving). The only time he stopped bustling about terribly was when he engaged a tourist in conversation - she was reading a book about Cambodian refugees and he eventually ended the conversation by ripping out a page that he thought was interesting for keepsies. Poor girl. We were too intimidated to do anything on the bus except watch him, but later we joked about all the crazy stuff he did, and Yannick postulated that he would be the sort of person who would turn up to an event with pre-arranged seating (like a wedding) and reorder everyone himself.

Once we arrived in the centre of Hoi An, we were immediately struck by its beauty and charm. The streets were stunning, with lush trees and flowers dangling down, and brightly coloured lanterns strung between buildings. Symptoms of the night's storm were evident, and we skipped over puddles and patches of mud on the way to our hotel. Though too early to check in, we dropped off our bags and set out again to explore.

One of the top sights in the town is the Japanese Covered Bridge, a wooden bridge dating back to the 17th century which has a Buddhist temple attached to the far side. Starting in the 16th century, Hoi An was a hub of trade, and attracted a cornucopia of multicultural settlers, including Japanese, Portuguese, and Dutch.

Across the street from the bridge was a fenced-off rickshaw, which may have been some sort of open air museum exhibit, and may have been related to the bridge, and may have been of Japanese influence, and may have been from the 17th century. There was no information about it, so my imagination ran wild and I assumed the best!

Strolling further down the street, we observed many townsfolk going about their morning routines, drinking coffee on little plastic stools, smoking, chatting, and slurping up soup. We happened to spy the facade of a Greek restaurant, which was the number one rated eatery in town on Tripadvisor. We vowed to return.

Fancying a bit of a sit down ourselves, we popped into a café for some drinks, and the view of the street was gorgeous! Sipping away, we gazed out at the locals riding their bikes and the lanterns swaying ever so slightly in the breeze.

Setting out again, we were bombarded with tailor shops. If I wanted a suit, this would be the place to go. Surprisingly enough, though there were a large number of souvenir stalls, there were almost as many art shops, which elevated the classiness factor.

The streets around the market were dingier than the main thoroughfare, but they were chock full of flowers and fruit, so it made up for it.

As it was still fairly early in the morning, the marketplace was much busier than the rest of the town, and we saw many goods on offer, from blocks of fried tofu to dried beans, from rice noodles to hard boiled eggs. I simply had to get my hands on some fresh pineapple and mango, and yum!

Swinging around my pink bag of fruits, we wandered away from the market to see more, more, more. We couldn't get enough of Hoi An.

In all fairness, the town was very tourist-oriented, with plenty of Western style cafés, sidewalk racks crammed full of postcards, and women calling out "Hello boy, foot massage!" However, although it may not have been the most 'authentic' of Vietnamese experiences, we did eventually make use of all three of those tourist amenities, and I don't think that's a bad thing.

There were such a large portion of temples and assembly halls, it was faintly astounding. Walking down the street, you would have rows of old houses on each side, and every few steps it seems you would see a tiny wooden sign for a niche museum, a family chapel, or an assembly hall - each for a different cultural group. The reason behind this diversity was that Hoi An was established as a major port in the 15th century, with merchants from around the world dropping anchor here to trade spices and other goods (merchants were predominantly Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, Portuguese, and Indian).

For lunch, we devoured sandwiches at Phi Banh Mi. They had an amazing vegan option with spicy tofu! And the chilled soda water was perfect for the hot day. There would be no cardigans or scarves worn in Hoi An, oh no. It was back to normal Vietnam temperatures for us. One of the ladies who ran the place came over to recommend some sights, tours, and also told us of one of the best tailors in town (her sister). 

With still a bit of time to kill before the check in time, we booked a table at a riverside bar for later, and meandered around the waterfront. The river had had swelled from the storm, and was encroaching on the road in places.

This was the bridge that led to the small island that we were staying on, called An Hoi. We managed to traverse pretty much the whole island in quite a short amount of time.

Interestingly, although there were plenty of hotels, spas, lantern workshops, and stores, the far side of the island was more rustic, with small shrines, fishermen leaning off wharves, and chickens scratching around in the dirt.
At long last, we were able to check into our hotel and revel in some much needed showers. We napped to supplement our insufficient sleeper bus night, and then it was nearly time for drinks! 

With the heat of the day diminishing, the crowds had taken to the streets, and were posing for selfies left, right, and centre. Women selling paper lanterns that could be sent out across the river were out in force to cater to the tourist mob, as were touters for restaurants, bars, spas, and boat rides. 

Having pre-booked our spot at a bar, we got a table right by the window on the second floor and had a good view of the street below and the river. We ordered a 'bucket' of Mai Tai (and it really was a small pink bucket!), and were soon joined by our friends Bridget and Jance, whom we had come to know in Singapore. Bridget took one look at the bucket and ordered one as well. We chatted away for a good long while, and then when our drinks were finished we left to find dinner.

We dined at a restaurant called Morning Glory; I didn't eat any morning glory there, but regardless it was becoming one of my new favourite vegetables (unfortunately you can't seem to find it outside of Vietnam).

My fried aubergine was delicious, and we had French red wine to compliment the meal. French! Red wine! Not Da Lat red wine! We hadn't been able to find European wine sold by the glass for some time, so that was a nice change. Sleepy from great food, drink, and company, we returned to our hotel to fall into a deep slumber.

Today's post was almost called: City of a Hundred Thousand Lanterns