Hoi An’s Tourism

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Tourists and locals reflected in the canal in Hoi An.

Hoi An, our next destination, is a ‘traditional’ village located 30 km south of Da Nang. Imagine any quintessential tourist village with preserved architecture, art galleries, and traditional restaurants, except in the theme of Vietnam, and you’ve got a good idea of what Hoi An is like. Women in traditional dress pose beneath the curved roofing of old homes and temples. Streets are lit by handmade fabric lanterns of every color, and human-powered rickshaws shout to get past throngs of tourists loitering, buying, staring, and photographing. It is at once adorable and obnoxious, somehow simultaneously catering to every touristic whim while being touristically exhausting.

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Lantern displays in Hoi An’s old town.
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A floating candle-lit lantern on the canal.

Nearly everyone in Hoi An is involved in the tourism industry, and anything and everything has a price on it. You can pay a man to pull you around in a  rickshaw, for a boat ride on the town’s canal, to take a photo of you in front of a building, to get ‘tourism information’. Even walking around costs money; Hoi An’s pedestrian streets have sometimes-manned ticketing booths at every street entrance, where occasionally people will deny you entry unless you pay. You can stand there as people who are clearly other Asian tourists stream by, but they won’t let you through unless you pay. Here, it’s the inconsistency of rules, both in race and in time, that bothers me.

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A man walks past a lantern display in the old town. And yes, you can also buy a lantern here. As many as you’d like.
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A woman gets ready for her shift at the inconsistently-manned ticketing booths that charge you to get into old town.

Things are also a distinctly different price for you as a tourist. I arranged a fairly pricey $75 cooking class for our second day there, and in the morning our guide showed us around Hoi An’s market. She was primarily interested in discussing the market’s vegetables and kept us at arm’s length, dodging questions about herself and life here in Hoi An with silence or vague responses like “We’re poor. We need tourist money.” We switched to asking about the market to make her more comfortable and to try and get an understanding for the pricing of things, but we found her responses equally as vague. It was confusing, given that she’s probably shopped this market every day of her life. Then she bought us some snacks for a few thousand VND and it became clear why she couldn’t give us exact prices. Excited to finally have a benchmark for something, I asked her about the price. “Hmmm…” she hesitated, “For you, maybe it would be 20,000 VND.” More than three times what she had paid.

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A traditional dish of prepared seafood (snails) mixed with chilis and green onions, available at the market. Our guide was unable to give us an estimated price for tourists.
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The snacks she bought for us. For locals, you can get three of them for around 6,000 VND.

Though the rest of the cooking class was pleasant and uneventful, I couldn’t shake the fact that every interaction was an opportunity to put on a show and pull more money from us. We took a boat out to our guide’s small village, on an island in the Thu Bon river delta, to continue with the cooking class. They brought out an old woman and introduced her as ‘grandma’, where all of the recipes come from, and she showed us a handful of tasks in rapid succession before shuffling off exhaustedly. The local ‘shopkeep’, a man who drives his motorbike laden with random goods around the island, paid us a visit to see if we wanted anything. And after the cooking class, the guide invited us on a walk that ended up at the house of an old woman, whom the guide told us was widowed. “She sells vegetables for a living…and we all try to help her by buying something or helping her tidy up around the house. Do you want to come in?” the guide asked as she held the gate open. I was only a little ashamed when I blurted out, “No, thank you.” I was exhausted.

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The travelling salesman of the island.
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The ingredients of our cooking lesson.
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Taking the boat back to Hoi An. The net in the background is used for nighttime fishing.

Part of this is my privilege talking. I can, after all, get onto an airplane and be welcomed in nearly any country in the world with my U.S. passport. It’s in immense privilege to be able to go somewhere and have more spending power than half of the local population. It’s a privilege for people to be excited about you coming to their country. You’re not an immigrant or drain on resources—you’re a gift to the economy and a sign of good times to come.

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A woman smiles after we bought two paper lanterns from her to float in the canal.

I also don’t blame the local people for all trying to make money off of tourism. When you see your neighbor bringing in a hundred times what you are by catering to tourists, you’re going to try and do the same. And there’s no way to say who does and doesn’t get to profit off of tourism without being unfair to someone, without shutting out a group of people from the new prosperity. But when everyone does it, when every interaction you have with another human being is a transaction, you’re bound to get transaction fatigue.

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Crowds of tourists in the old town.

The next day we left Hoi An, bound for Da Nang by way of a tour bus. We visit ancient Buddhist temples in the marble mountains, where just outside you could buy carved marble Buddhas to take home. We walk through a sacred Buddhist cave, embellished (recently) with scenes of Buddhist hell to liven it up for the tourist crowd. At the entrance to the cave is plaque to Vietnamese fighters. “What does it say?” I ask our guide. “Oh, it’s for soldiers who fought here against American forces. They shot down a plane,” he says absentmindedly, “But if you keep walking, it is more interesting inside. There are scenes of Buddhist hell.”

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The plaque commemorating guerillas stationed here during the American War.
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A demon roasts humans in a scene from ‘Buddhis hell’. I think this is the sin for eating meat or being a butcher.

We end our tour with a stop at a marble factory, one of those ‘compulsory opportunities’ to buy souvenirs that so common in tours. We take the chance to use the restroom and wander through the store, past gemstones, jewelry, and carved marble of every shape and color. We stop to stare at an ornate marble fountain and a man hurries over to us. “Want to buy it?” he asks.

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A marble statue, as always, available for sale.
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Post of Posts

Hey friends!

Our journey around the world has nearly come full circle and now we turn our steps homeward. If you’re following along in posts you might be surprised since the previous post put us in Vietnam. But to travel, live, and write every day is a tall order and we long ago accepted the blog would always lag behind our footsteps. Now that we’re headed home to new lives, time to add to this blog will become scarce, but I don’t want to leave this project half-finished. So I’ve slimmed the number of remaining blog posts down to those with the most meaning to us. This isn’t easy because it means giving up perfectionism and completionism that rely on in life, the obsessions that carried me through college and my PhD. “It was all wonderful! I want to show you everything!” the voice in my headspace shouts. But time is limited and new projects beckon.

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Thousands of stories, only so much time.

Since this is an illustrative example of the universal problem of ‘more thing to do than time allows’, I’m sharing my thought process below on how I chose the remaining blog posts. I keep the titles of all future posts written in a word processor document, so I went through and asked myself whether each title had a story I had to write. Did it have something that need to share with you?

Most of the posts I erased were ones meant to make the blog a complete timeline of our travels. I cleared out most of the posts detailing our transitions between cities or countries because you can figure out when we’ve gone somewhere new—we’re a travel blog. I also found a lot of posts that were simply photos of a city followed by an article about something specific in the city; I’ve combined these posts into one. And some things were just unmemorable. If I looked at the title of a post and couldn’t immediately recall what it was about, out it goes.

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The post ‘to-write’ list, before and after. Double-dashes mark breaks between countries.

The end result is that I’ve more than halved the number of posts left, from 200 to around 90. I’d estimate that this will save me about 40% of my writing time because many of the posts I removed from the ‘to-write’ list were short and easy and the remaining posts are more in-depth. But they all have something I want to tell you about our travels, stories from our journey around the world.

Trying (and failing) to hike Son Tra Mountain

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A Buddhist temple and Da Nang’s skyline seen through the midday haze from Son Tra Mountain.

After the amazing nature we experienced in Indonesia, we were ready to tackle Vietnam’s hiking trails. Unfortunately information online was sparse and having not yet fully internalized how poorly the hike from Tumpang to Bromo unfolded, I figured we could just go out to a place, pick up a dirt path, and follow it in and out. There was mention online of biking trails on Son Tra Mountain, which lies on a peninsula just north of Da Nang and wouldn’t be too far from civilization. So one morning we packed our bags and caught a taxi out there to try hiking around the mountain.

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Signs along the road on Son Tra Mountain. This shadeless path seems to be the only path for cars, bikes, and the unfortunate person who wants to walk.

 

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Cars and motorbikes speed past us as we hike up the road.

This hike was a failure, though not in its objectives. We were able to hike up the mountain and see some of Vietnam’s natural beauty. No, where this hike failed was in that it was utterly miserable for two reasons: lack of information made it impossible to find a walking trail and it was swelteringly hot. When we arrived at our destination, we asked the staff at the InterContinental Hotel about hiking trails and though they spoke English, they didn’t seem to understand the hiking part. They directed us to the vehicle road leading up the mountain. This shadeless pavement path was our trail for the hike and the noontime tropical sun beati down on us. The sunblock we applied simply dissolved in our sweat and we burned. It was not a fun hike.

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Stoytcho rests in the shade of a tree.
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The sun shines through the tree’s leaves. We never get full respite from the sun.

We realized an hour in that we weren’t going to make it to the top of the mountain and picked a smaller, nearer peak as our destination. It still took us another hour and a half to reach this peak and at the top we collapsed in the shade of a tree, panting and gulping down water. From here we could make out Da Nang’s skyscrapers in the midday haze and see the sparkling blue water along the shoreline below. “We should’ve gone swimming today,” we agreed as we hiked back down the mountain, passed by whizzing cars and passing vehicle debris.

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The shoreline of the peninsula, with its alluring aqua waters. Should’ve gone swimming.
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Incense sticks beside a pile of motorbike debris, probably indicating an accident where someone died. 

For those of you who found your way here because you’re looking for a hike in Da Nang, don’t do this one because it’s hot and just not worth it unless you have a motorbike or bicycle. For those of you reading along on our travels, this is a good moment to enjoy the fact you’re at your computer and not thousands of miles away hiking, sweating, and burning in the tropical sun. For us, this experience is a reminder to know there’s a trail before going. While traveling we’re trying lots of new things, and they won’t always work out. Best to keep the spirits up—and remember more sunblock.

Oh! And there was some cool wildlife:

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A Paris peacock butterfly (Papilio paris) collects nectar from a flower.
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A groundskimmer (Diplacodes trivialis) rests on a leaf in the sun.

 

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A soldier ant (unknown species) defends a line of foragers (from us).
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A planthopper of the family Flatidae rests on my hand and nervously eyes the camera.

Halfway through our year of travel

Edit: this was of 2017/04/30

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Our gorgeous appetizer of smoked meats, fruits, and veg.

Guess what today is? Halfway day! As of today, April 30 2017, we are halfway through our year of travels. We’re celebrating by going to a fancy restaurant tonight, Da Nang’s fusion restaurant Fatfish. Stoytcho is having the braised duck breast, the beer tasting flight, and a Vietnamese coffee, while I’m having the duck leg over noodles and a dessert of crème brulee.

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The duck leg at Fatfish.
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The duck breast at Fatfish.

It also happens to be Reunification day in Vietnam, so there are huge crowds gathered at the riverbank and there’s a celebration with fireworks during our dinner.

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The street chaos as a car tries to turn around on a street full of pedestrians and people on motorbikes, post-fireworks display.
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Decorations for Reunification Day.

To six more months of good travel!

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The Vietnamese are serious about their drinks

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London Fog and Vietnamese coffee at a cafe in Hanoi.

Drinks are a cuisine unto themselves in Vietnamese culture, with dozens of drinkable delights that you can stir, sip, and chew. Yes, chew.

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Fresh fruit juice and sweetend milk with sticky purple rice.

Two of the defining features of Vietnamese drinks is that they’re 1) almost always decoratively presented and 2) texturally different. It’s not like in the U.S., where the waiter brings you a cold Coke in a can and if you’re lucky, a glass of ice and a straw. Here, you get a drinks with fruit garnishes or served in two beautiful layers that you stir together to make the drink. A diversity of textures is also common, with many containing infused fruits, jellies, or rice ingredients that are chewy, slimy, spongy, or squishy. It’s a feast for the senses.

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Vietnamese Egg Coffee, which mixes a raw egg into hot coffee and forms a thick, creamy foam with the flavor of tiramisu.
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Lemongrass citrus infusion tea at a local cafe.

The most evident example of these drinks are bubble tea/boba. Boba is originally Taiwanese, but the Vietnamese have adopted it with a passion and made it their own. There are boba cafes scattered throughout every city, ranging from simple street stalls to trendy cafes with brick, handmade wood furniture, and décor straight out of downtown Brooklyn. There’s also way more to choose from than just the brown tapioca pearls known as ‘boba’. There are the poppers containing fruit-flavored syrups that burst open when you chew them, which made it to the U.S. a couple of years ago and are often offered as a topping in Yogurtland.

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Plain boba in bubble tea (right) beside a mix of boba and jellies in bubble tea (left).

Then there’s a lot of stuff that also hasn’t gotten popular in the U.S. yet (although I may be poorly informed; it’s been years since I’ve been near a halfway-decent boba café): rainbow jelly cubes made from tapioca and fruit-flavored gelatin, basil seeds that are squidgy and crunchy when you chew on it, sweet black rice that oozes and sits at the bottom of your cup, puddings with a super-soft consistency that burst with the flavor of burnt sugar and flan when you bite down. All of these options and more are laid out before you at the café in neat little containers, a textural symphony waiting to brighten your drink. If you’re a boba lover, Vietnam is your kind of place.

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A full bubble tea DIY mix in, courtesy of Popping Tea in Da Nang.

Da Nang City Shots

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A boat on the Han River in Da Nang

Da Nang is a seaside city we remember for its gorgeous beaches and amazing food. Tourism isn’t the primary industry in Da Nang, so accommodations can be found that are cheaper and more backpacker-friendly and there aren’t a lot of pushy travel agents and salespeople on the streets. The open-air restaurants lining the streets down to the beach are a mix of traditional Vietnamese and seafood eateries, a dream for those here to eat the ocean. AND it had our favorite boba and banh mi places in all of Vietnam. If we were to come back to Vietnam, it would be to visit this city and Da Lat again.

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Well-enforced motorbike laws.
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Fresh vegetables grow in a plot in the middle of a Da Nang neighborhood.
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A man waters his vegetable plot.
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Locals take photos on a closed-off bridge, before being chased off by guards.
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Men stand on their boat on the Han River with Da Nang’s cityline in the background.
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A man transports balloons on his motorbike.
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A woman hangs a Vietnamese flag on her house for Reunification Day.
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A woman waits with a delivery at one of Da Nang’s open-air restaurants.
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A man looks over a streetside restaurant along Nguyen Van Thoai Road.
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A man grills pork for banh mi at our favorite banh mi stall.
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Our favorite banh mi in all of Vietnam: a few slivers of cilantro and onion, but mostly pure grilled pork meat and pate.
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Stoytcho sits at a tiny table in a local boba stand.
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The Da Nang Dragon Bridge.
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A toad hides along the Han riverbank.
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A man pulls a boat ashore after rowing visitors out to see the city lights.
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Da Nang’s Dragon Bridge spouts fire for onlookers at its weekly show.

Off to Da Nang!

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We line up to march onto the tarmac at Da Lat Airport.

It’s time to head on to our next city, Da Nang. While a lot of backpackers attempt to bus or train around Vietnam, we’ve found it’s insanely cheap to fly. Our average flight per person flight cost is $100 USD, and this flight from Da Lat to Da Nang cost us $121 per person. Sure, the bus from Da Lat to Da Nang can be found through a travel agent at $11 per person, there are some horror stories out there and you have to go through Nha Trang, which we’ve heard from fellow travelers is one of the seediest, unpleasant places they’ve ever visited. So yeah, we’re not sad that we’re skipping the on-the-ground travel in this case.

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Walking the tarmac! Off to Da Nang, now.

Looking for flights? Your best bet is to check Jetstar, which had a ton of deals while we were there. Air Vietnam also sometimes has deals to compete with Jetstar.

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This advert was just so weird, so it’s here. You’re welcome!