Saigon is an amazing city and one for which I had longed to return. Things were different this time. Saigon has experienced amazing growth in the ten years since my last visit. More people, more horns honking, more scooters barreling down the streets (and side walks), more more air pollution, and more frenetic energy. It was little too much for Laurie so we decided to head up north to Hoi An. I knew Hoi An would be a peaceful respite for Laurie. I had really enjoyed Hoi An on my last trip to Vietnam almost ten years ago. Hoi An was the place in Vietnam I had most wanted to share with Laurie.
A key component in my ability to afford this trip is to minimize the cost of travel. I like to say we surf the wave of low airfares. I have really gotten good at weeding out exceptionally low airfares and allowing these low airfares to dictate where we go. The only way to get to Hoi An is through Danang. Unfortunately, air travel to Danang is always expensive. I hoped to avoid this by taking the train. I had taken the train from Hanoi to Sapa on my last trip and I had really enjoyed it. Train travel is a great way to see the countryside and can be very relaxing. Just what Laurie needed, right?
I had done my research and had high expectations for our sixteen hour, overnight train ride to Danang. My main source of information was Seat61.com. I chose the SE1 specifically because it was going to be refurbished by the end of 2015. Only it wasn’t. It was an old, weary, worn out train.
Laurie and I have become so similar, in so many ways, over our thirty-one years of marriage. So much so that we can read each others minds and often finish each others sentences. We do however, have different expectations and tolerances when it comes to travel. I knew from the moment I boarded the train with her that I was in trouble, big trouble. Being trapped on a train with an angry wife for sixteen hours is not a good idea!!!
I had booked a soft sleeper for us. A traveling compartment with four berths. I had hoped for lower berths but the train was full and we were stuck with two upper berths. We were sharing our compartment with a young couple traveling with their eighteen-month old baby. This young mother was also nine-months pregnant! As the train began its trek to Danang, picking up speed, we began to wonder if her pregnancy would withstand the shaking, rattling, bumping, lurching motions for a few moments, much less the sixteen hours ahead of us.
As the train began its journey we were pleased to hear English being spoken in the compartments next to us on both sides. Young people, backpackers, from Canada, Australia, and Hong Kong. Laurie settled into her bunk and appeared to have drifted off to sleep. I whispered I was leaving and I headed off to the front of the train, the dining car, to join the guys for a quick beer.
Halfway through our first beer the crew began converting the dining car into their sleeping quarters for the night. Boxes of food items were placed on the benches, then flattened cardboard boxes over the tables, followed by blankets, and then the crew stretched out on their makeshift beds. I bid my new friends goodnight and began my long walk through ten train cars to get back to our compartment.
Traveling in a soft sleeper car with A/C is really a luxury. Every car towards the dining car is a step down in comfort. This is a soft seat car. Walking back I needed to step over people simply sleeping on the floor.
Walking back towards our compartment I bumped into the girlfriend of one of my new drinking buddies. She told me that my wife was looking for me. Her expression as she told me this said I was in trouble, big trouble! With an impending sense of doom I hurried on. When I got to our compartment Laurie wasn’t there. I kept walking towards the back of the train and eventually found her. Laurie was furious!!! One of those traveling moments we laugh about now, but at the time it really was not so funny. Laurie didn’t hear me tell her that I was going to grab a beer. The train had jerked to a stop and she noticed I was gone. She began to imagine every possible worst case scenario, including the possibility that I had been removed from the train. This was a moment that highlighted how different our minds can be. When I think that I am on a moving train so where can I possibly go, she thinks of all the possible places I could be and ways I can be in trouble!
It took a while for Laurie to calm down and she went back to her bunk quite upset. The train ride was much rougher than I anticipated and there were times it seemed a miracle that the train remained on the tracks. I was able to relax on my bunk and actually got some sleep. Laurie not so much! Every so often Laurie would manage to climb down off her bunk as the train was bouncing, rocking, and lurching down the tracks and make her way to the filthy head at the end of the car. With water and urine splashed everywhere, stepping over people, she managed. Everytime she made it back to our compartment I regretted taking the train. She did’t say anything, she didn’t have to.
Finally the sun came up. It was a new day. I found Laurie enjoying the part of the journey that make traveling by train so special. Looking out the window and watching Vietnam go by.
Laurie has alway been fascinated by cemeteries. This video takes us past one of the biggest we have ever seen.
After our long train journey to Danang we caught a taxi to Joy Hoi An Homestay. Although a bit off the beaten path this was one of our favorite places. The staff was amazing, the whole building was immaculate, the room was so comfortable, the food was delicious, and best of all we were treated like family. I was still having some breathing difficulties and really needed a place to rest for few days. After settling in I went on to the Airbnb website and extended our stay from three nights to seven.
We really enjoyed exploring the ancient town and tasting the local food. Hoi An’s food is some of the best in Vietnam and there are four traditional dishes that can only be found here. They are Cao Lau- Hoi An’s signature dish, chicken rice, white rose and quang noodle. The flavors and the taste can’t be found elsewhere in Vietnam, making them legendary around food critics.
White Rose Hoi An is one of the four dishes that Hoi An is known for and that can only be found in Hoi An. White rose is an appetizer named for its shape when presented properly. White Rose is a type of shrimp dumpling made from translucent white dough bunched up to look like a rose. Ingredients such as shrimp and pork are placed on top the carefully folded noodles and topped with crispy shallot. The unique dipping sauce is made of shrimp broth, hot chilies, lemon and sugar. Water must be drawn from the old Ba Le well, which is filtered and purified 15-20 times before being mixed with the rice paste to form an airy dough.
Of these four dishes Cao lau is truly Hoi An’s signature dish. Cao lau is a delectable dark pork broth with fat yellow noodles, slices of juicy pork, served with bean sprouts, green vegetables, slices of onions and crispy croutons (crispy pork rind). The noodles must be made with the water from one of the closely guarded ancient Cham wells hidden throughout Hoi An, vegetable have to be taken from Tra Que vegetable village, and the ashes which use to soak the noodle have to be taken from Cham Island. I requested this dish for breakfast almost everyday.
In this video, Kim Dung, Son’s assistant at Joy Hoi An Homestay, demonstrates how she makes the Cao Lau for my breakfast!
This is Helen’s recipe for Cao Lau.
One of my favorite lunches in Vietnam was the Bahn mi sandwich. This Vietnamese sandwich is a product of French colonialism in Indochina, combining ingredients from the French (baguettes, pâté, jalapeño, and mayonnaise) with native Vietnamese ingredients, such as coriander, cucumber, and pickled carrots and white radish. The Bahn mi pictured below was the best I have ever tasted. It is a seared ahi Bahn mi with traditional Vietnamese vegetables and served with a glass of fresh watermelon juice. Seriously, it was so delicious I could not pass the Red Dragon restaurant with out ordering three!
Our timing in visiting Hoi An wasn’t the best as it was the middle of rainy season. Rainy season here is really an understatement. It rained every day and at times the rain came in torrential downpours. Laurie and I had taken the bikes out in-between downpours and came across this delightful lady selling her wares in an abandoned outdoor market. The beach was curtained off to protect the sandy beach in preparation for a possible typhoon! It seemed perfect though with one market, one vendor, and one customer all doing their part to stimulate the Hoi An economy!
On our bike ride to the beach above we paused to enjoy some of the river scenery.
Hoi An was so different for me compared to my last trip here ten years. The government in response to increased tourism, and the desire for more, had thoroughly modernized this ancient city. Although still a Unesco World Heritage City there were more tourists than locals now. I really wanted to show Laurie the Hoi An I had experienced on my solo travels but it was gone. The ancient city is very clean now, filled with lots of shops and restaurants, but the grit, the character, perhaps even the very soul of the city seemed, for me, to be missing. We still had a great time and I recommend if you come to Vietnam that you visit Hoi An. Laurie loved it so much that she yearns to return to this “magical” city!
Entering Hoi An’s ancient city at night. Really a delightful place for an evening stroll.
Everyday, since the passing of Laurie’s dearest friend Felice, Laurie spots a rose. This lady, for some unknown reason, sent her son to chase us down and give Laurie this rose that she had just made from bamboo.
On our last night in Hoi An we send our just made origami baskets floating down the river. Our next stop will be Siem Reap, Cambodia!