Hoi An - Ho Chi Minh City - Can Tho

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November 20th 2011
Published: November 20th 2011
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My next stop down the coast of Vietnam was in Hoi An. Less than a 4 hour bus drive from Hue. Hoi An is a fairly small city with a compact ancient town. Besides the attractive ancient town, nearby beaches and beautiful countryside, most visitors to Hoi An come for the numerous tailors. There are several hundred tailors in the city, most of them concentrated in the old town. Hoi An is a great place to get a custom tailored suit, shirt or even a whole wardrobe (if you can carry it all back with you) for very cheap prices. I had a suit and shirt made, good quality and materials, at a cost of $110. It was all made in a day, with a couple fittings and minor adjustments over the next couple days. Overall I spent 3 nights and 4 days in Hoi An. A couple of days I rented a bicycle and went to the beach and rode along the coast for a bit. The beach was only a few km from the ancient town, and it was an easy ride. The beach was alright. Even though it was cloudy in town, the beach was nice and sunny. One of the days I spent a couple hours sitting on the beach, wandering and reading. I rode along a small street that ran about 100 feet in from the beach until I found an open lot where I was able to access the beach. I could have gone to a few spots with some restaurants and lounge chairs, but I wanted to get somewhere by myself. Besides a couple of tourists wandering the beach and a few locals who appeared from time to time, I had the place to myself.

The ancient town had a very charming feel to it. The buildings were old and despite the fact that nearly every other building had a tailor and every one in between was some kind of souvenir shop, I enjoyed walking around. Indeed, most of the time I was there was spent either walking around or cycling around the ancient town and the islands across the river, when they became accessible. The first day I arrived there was some flooding along the riverside - the river was a bit higher than its banks so the streets along the river were flooded and one of the islands was inaccessible since the bridge was underwater. By the second day, the waters had receded and by the third, the muck was cleaned off.

The food in Hoi An was the best I've had in Vietnam. The first day, when I was walking around near the market in the ancient town I found a banh mi cart, where I had the best banh mi so far. It was cheaper too, only 10000 dong, 50 cents. I would come back several times too. Later in the evening when I was walking around with someone I had met in Hanoi, we had some grilled beef with a peanut sauce over noodles. It was great. This is actually one of my favorite dishes to eat at a vietnamese restaurant back home, and I had been looking for it in Vietnam. This one did not disappoint. We splitted a bowl, which cost only 30000 dong. It was a good snack. Like the banh mi place, I would come back here several times. They also had fruit smoothies/shakes, which unfortunately I didn't try until the last day in town. They were only 15000 dong, and the mixed fruit shake was probably one of the best fruit shakes I've ever had. Made from a variety of fresh tropical fruits it was delicious. The friend I met had arrived a day earlier and discovered a nice cafe not far from the hotel I stayed at. They had a variety of local and general Vietnamese dishes. We sampled quite a few there over the course of a few days. A few things we tried - a beef noodle dish whose name is escaping me at the moment, white rose (a translucent shrimp dumpling shaped like a flower, fried wontons, papaya salad (delicious), chicken rice and a few others. The prices were very good, usually about 1-3 dollars per dish. The best though was the fresh beer, only 3000 dong, 15 cents, a glass. It was tasty and refreshing after walking around all day. The fresh beer is available all over Vietnam, at similar prices, and other beer isn't expensive either, often less than a dollar for a bottle.

My hotel was nice enough. It wasn't anything fancy, but it was clean and cheap. I had a room with two double beds and a fan for $8. They had dorms for $5, but I wanted a room to myself for once. It was only a 5 minute walk from the ancient town and about the same to the cafe.

From Hoi An, my next destination was Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Ho Chi Minh City is the official name, but it seems most people call it Saigon, at least those I've interacted with. I considered stopping at Nha Trang, a beach resort city halfway to Saigon, but decided that I didn't need to sit on the beach any more for a while. The only advantage it offered was a break in what was about a 24 hour bus trip from Hoi An to Saigon. I ended up skipping it and staying on the bus. We had to switch buses in Nha Trang anyways, but it was not problem. The buses were sleeper buses, which while not especially comfortable to sleep on, were perfectly fine when you were awake. Even though they are apparently tourist buses, it seems that almost everyone on them is Vietnamese. I guess its much more comfortable than the other cheap alternatives for long distance travel.

Saigon is the largest city in Vietnam and it certainly feels that way. Much more crowded and crazy than even Hanoi. The bus arrived at a bus station out somewhere I didn't know where. I eventually just took a city bus to Ben Thanh Market, which I knew was near the tourist strip where most of the cheap hotels/hostels were. Eventually I found my hostel, at the far end of the tourist strip. It was a fairly new place with nice dorms for about $6. Because I arrived in the evening, I ended up staying 3 nights which gave me two full days. Two days seemed like plenty for the city, which like Hanoi, had only a handful of sights. One of the more interesting ones was the Reunification Palace, the former South Vietnamese Presidential Palace. Apparently you are supposed to buy a ticket (not expensive, only 35000 dong), but I didn't see the booth and walked in the gate with nobody asking for my ticket. There were a couple of tanks on the grounds which had crashed through the gates near the end of the Vietnam War. The palace was large and a had fairly modern style, since it was built in the 60's. The palace itself is frozen in time - almost exactly as it was when the North Vietnamese took control of it in the 1970's. Nearly the entire palace was open to visitors (you couldn't go in the actual rooms but you could look into most of them). It was a very interesting place - several large formal rooms for conferences and entertaining guests, the presidential residence, bunker like basement, rooftop deck. All of which were very opulent. I spent a couple hours wandering around the palace before leaving and walking past the Notre Dame Cathedral nearby. A nice cathedral, but nothing like the ones in Europe. I walked down a street where there were a handful of nice galleries with traditional lacquers and paintings, all of which were a bit out of my budget, but very beautiful. I then headed over to Ben Thanh Market, the touristy market nearby. There was some fruit, some food, clothes, some touristy shops and some household items. I bought a pack of Vietnamese coffee, which included a filter for a couple bucks. There were a few thing that interested me in the touristy parts, but I ended up not buying anything else. In retrospect, I wish I had bought a set of colorful bamboo bowls or a couple lacquer bowls. Back near the hostel, there are two street with tons of restaurants, hotels, travel agencies, souvenir shops and other tourist places. I found a nice bookstore and bought a couple of books from their dollar section.

The third day I wandered around some more, and made my way up towards the War Remnants museum, but it was closed until the afternoon with a power outage apparently. So I wandered back, found a nice park to walk through and went to another market near the hotel. This market was mostly a hardware market, lots of random pieces of hardware, tools, gages, and whatnot. In the middle, though, is a section with gear supposedly from the war. I didn't want to buy any of the US army stuff, but I did ask about a few Vietnamese hats, but they didn't seem to have any interest in haggling, so I left empty handed. While I was walking through the market, I noticed several big rats running around. It kind of surprised me, since there was no food here.

For dinner the first night I had a nice bowl of Pho. The next day there was a place with good smoothies and another place with a lunch special kebab sandwich. I felt like changing it up a bit, so the third night I had some Indian food, a set that had a couple of curries, naan rice for $6. All of which was delicious.

After Saigon, my next stop was in the middle of the Mekong Delta, the city of Can Tho. I asked about buses at the hostel, but the guy at the desk didn't know of anything other than the tours they offered and seemed surprised when I told him that there were normal buses that went there. Eventually I got directions to the bus station and got on the bus to Can Tho for a few dollars. Can Tho is a fairly large city, over a million people I thing, right on one of the rivers. I spent two nights there a decent hotel. I was on the top floor and had a good view of the city and the river for $8. After I arrived, I spent my time wandering around the riverfront and the area nearby. There wasn't too much to see besides the locals and the neighborhoods. There was a market with lots of fresh fruit. I got dinner at a street restaurant along the riverside. I had a cheap bowl of beef rice, but they did have some interesting grill options, including a variety of eels and fish and even mice. I wanted to try the mice, but they were relatively expensive and I can't imagine there would be much meat on them.

The next day I slept in and was lazy in the morning watching a movie on TV. Once I got out of the room, I rented a bicycle (much more expensive here) and did some cycling out along one of the rivers, hoping to get out into the country a bit. I never did find what I was hoping for (fruit farms and rice fields), but it was nice and I cycled for several hours. On the way back I got a banh mi for 10000 dong and went to the riverside where I got a sugarcane juice drink for 5000 dong. It was a nice lunch, especially after the long bike ride. I bought a bunch of mini bananas (10000 dong) for a cheap snack later on. That night I let myself get talked in to a boat ride the next morning. It was a bit more than I wanted to spend ($30), but since we left at 5:30 and got back after 1:00 and I was on the boat by myself with the driver, I figured it was fair. We left early in the morning and went to one of the floating markets. The boat was not much more than a small rowboat with a motor on the back, but it was comfortable and steady. It took about an hour to get there. Once we were there, it was only around 7:00, but there wasn't very much activity. This was the wholesale market, very touristy apparently, and I did see several tourist boats around. Most of the vendors boats were larger though and filled with a variety of vegetables and fruit. We stayed here a little bit before heading farther on to a small village along a canal where they had a rice paper/noodle factory. It was interesting to see. First they ground the cleaned rice into a milky slurry, which was cooked over a rice fueled fire into a giant pancake. This was cooled and then taken over to a device which cut it into the noodles. After that we went farther to the next floating market. I imagine this one would have been more interesting if we got there earlier. By this time (after 8), it was mostly tourist boats and vendors, with not much happening. The was a little rain, so a lot of the boats were covered with tarps and plastic. There were boats, a little bigger (mostly longer) than my boat filled with fruits and vegetables though. After sitting for a while watching not much happen, we left and went towards the next stop, a few fruit farms. The driver dropped me off on the side of the river and I walked down and saw a variety of fruits growing - mango, papaya, jackfruit (very interesting to see), coconut, banana, star fruit, star apple, longans, etc. After crossing the "monkey bridge", which was not much more than a thin board with a flimsy railing, and a little more walking I was back on the boat. We cruised a little longer before stopping for an early lunch, which was alright, nothing special. After lunch we continued cruising through the narrow, plant choked canals until we got back to the larger river and went back to town. It was a good experience, but didn't quite live up to my expectations.

After arriving, I went to the hotel, picked up my bags and got a motorbike to the bus station. My destination was Chau Doc, a city very close to the Cambodian border. I got a minibus for $3, which was crowded and kept picking up people along the way, eventually we had at least 20 people with seats for about 16. I was fine though, in the back so new people couldn't get back there to crowd in. We arrived in the late afternoon/early evening, and I got another motobike to my hotel, another decent cheap place. I walked a bit around town, but there wasn't much to see and most things were closed anyways. I had some trouble finding a restaurant, but I found one and had some spring rolls, and then went back to the hotel for a smoothie and some noodles. I booked a seat on the fast boat to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for the morning and went to bed early, since the boat left early and I didn't get a great sleep the night before.

Now that I caught up, I'll leave Cambodia for a post on its own. I am in Phnom Penh right now, it is my second night. It is a nice enough city (not quite as crazy as Hanoi or Saigon, and almost no beeping!). Tomorrow I will go to Siem Reap for a few days to explore the Angkor Wat temple complex. My stay in Cambodia will be a short one, only about a week. I think I'd like to stay longer, but not this time.


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