The longest train ride I’ve ever taken was 60 hours, give or take, from Flagstaff to New York via Chicago. By that measure, the 17 hours overnight it took to get from Hanoi to Danang was a breeze. Even so, that amount of time cooped up can be draining. I’d be terrible in solitary confinement, with or without a Kindle. Sleeping in a four person cabin, arranged into two bunks, there was barely enough room to swing my legs onto the bed, let alone a cat. With the recent theft of Emily’s iPhone still fresh in my mind, I reverted to being the paranoid traveller that assumes everyone wants everything he’s carrying, and slept with one leg and one arm through the straps of my bags, hugging them like a pillow. Despite lying on my side in a cot that would now be cosy for a newborn, I managed to fall asleep easily, drifting off to the lullaby of clattering rails. It was a far cry from the peace and quiet of Halong Bay, but bliss compared to Hanoi’s honking horns.
I had mentally prepared myself for not liking Hoi An. Every review of the town described it as a giant tourist trap, every review of the hotels listing mould, or expense or other deficiency. For a time it looked like I was going to be right. Our taxi driver dropped us in the middle of town instead of at the hotel we’d booked. As we wandered around town we were besieged by the hoi polloi; dozens of hawkers asking us to buy fruit, dresses, suits and nuts, touts imploring us to take a boat up or down river and moto-taxis wanting to drive us to the Marble Mountains, all despite the obvious 20kg packs on our backs. Then, finding a Internet cafe to get an accurate location of our hotel, we found that the hotel booking agency had emailed to tell us the hotel was full. It hadn’t stopped them from taking the money of course.
In hindsight, all of this is standard travelling fare, and it only actually took about 2 hours to get sorted, but at the time we were tired, dirty and keen to find a place to lay our heads. Once we managed that, things started picking up.
Having spent 2 lovely days here, it turns out Hoi An is actually rather charming. It really is a huge tourist trap – there are more here than I’ve seen anywhere on this trip, except Halong Bay, but after a while you don’t really notice them. It’s not lager-lout touristy and there isn’t much shouting. There is still the beeping of motorbikes, of course – I’m convinced that is just how the Vietnamese drive, but it is sporadic rather than incessant. The hawkers are very pleasant and not overly insistent and the taxi drivers all friendly and smile when you wave them away. Perhaps because there are so many travellers here there is less desperation to take every dollar from every person.
When we were concentrating on looking for a place to stay, we hardly took any notice of the town itself, which actually has a dilapidated beauty about it. The yellow brickwork in the old quarter has faded in parts to white and succumbed to moss and mould, making for interesting facades. Like Luang Prabang, there is a distinct lack of neon, with fairy lights and candles used at night in lots of places for ambience, illuminating wooden signs and shutters. The river itself is calming and allows for an open plaza at the banks which feels less cramped.
Yesterday, we took a trip out to Cham Island (prounounced Charm), which is about 15km off the coast. A bouncy 20 minute speedboat ride brought us to 20km2 island which was remarkable mainly for the fact that the vast majority of tourists here were themselves Vietnamese. It is apparently a favourite place to visit from Saigon. After briefly looking around a 200 year old temple, which might have been more spectacular had we not come through Thailand and Laos, we headed back to the harbour and anchored off the coast for some snorkelling.
If you’ve been playing along, you’ll know the sun was pretty strong on Saturday and clearly I hadn’t crossed enough appendages. The best way I can describe my sunburn is to refer you to the Austrian flag. Thankfully, I had been wearing long shorts, otherwise there could have been significantly less white. Diving into the water brought sweet relief, even if the reefs weren’t as sweet as those off Hamilton Island. The brochure had advertised a “delicious seafood meal on a tropical beach”, which I had taken to be marketing material, so I was pleasantly surprised to find just that awaiting us. An hour or two sipping drinks under the welcome shade of a palm tree completed a second beautiful day for us in Hoi An.
In the evening we finally took up the offer of a boat ride and drifted along as the sun set over the river. It’s a nice little scam – you pay the money to be ferried up and down river by a little old woman, who invites you to join in rowing, and you end up mostly taking yourself there and back! Hai, our friendly oarswoman, was a 55 year old Hoi An native with a wrinkly face and a big smile which revealed teeth that looked like uncrushed salt and pepper. We couldn’t possibly let her do all the work.
We have one final opportunity to wander around today, as we prepare for Mui Ne tomorrow. We have booked a place directly with the owner this time so we’re hopeful of avoiding a repeat performance of our arrival here. After another 14 hour overnight train ride tonight, it would be good to catch the sunset with a cocktail in hand.