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Published: March 8th 2012
WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN NHA TRANG lounging in beach chairs by the ocean, trying to avoid the intense sun, since I once again resemble a lobster. Around 5pm we hopped onto a sleeper bus headed for Hoi An, a small riverside town about 12 hours up the coast. We pulled in around 6am and snagged a ride from two motorbike drivers – once again balancing precariously on the back as our large packs bounced up and down in the cold morning air (all of the actual taxi drivers were out of town for Tet). Our guesthouse was gorgeous! It blew any of the places we had stayed at in Bangkok or India out of the water. Just as I was peeking around the corner to investigate the buffet breakfast downstairs I heard a familiar voice calling my name. It was Brenda and Lieke, the girls from Holland that we had partied with in Nha Trang! Not only had they came to the same city as us, on the same day, but they had also booked the exact same hotel.
After napping for the better part of the morning we went out to explore our surroundings, this
always being the first order of business. Even when I don’t feel the best or don’t particularly feel like going out, there is always a burning desire to know where I am in the world - to get a sense for my immediate surroundings. Despite the gray, misty skies Hoi An was captivating. The streets of Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site) begged you to stroll down them. They were narrow and winding, lined with cafes, tailoring shops, the occasional pagoda, art galleries and handicraft stores; many of them housed in ancient wooden shop houses. We stopped for a coffee at one of the infinite riverside cafés and sat there, suspended in time for several hours. For the first time in months I felt completely relaxed and unrushed. We had nowhere to go, nothing we needed to do. We sat, watching the gentle flow of the Thu Bon River talking about our dreams and goals for the coming months. With the weight of our impending return on my mind I made a note to myself to appreciate this occasion, knowing that moments of total freedom from obligation are far and few between in our normal lives.
We spent our second day in much the same manner as the first, although the skies were bluer, creating an even more charming backdrop. We stopped at several historic houses which had been carefully preserved as well at the Japanese Covered Bridge that was constructed in 1593. The streets of the Old Town and the outdoor market were bustling with Vietnamese people who were on holiday for Tet, however, for the very same reason several of the sites and shops were boarded up. At some point in the afternoon we stumbled upon the striking Quan Cong Temple. The temple had a very Chinese feel to it with bright red lanterns, dragon paintings, and white lattice work; very different from the golden curls and spires of Thai temples. There was a courtyard in front with orange trees, bonsais and a bubbling koi pond. Red spirals of incense hung from the ceiling. Constructed in 1653 and dedicated to General Quan Cong of the Han Dynasty, it was originally used by merchants who came to pray for good luck prior to leaving on trips. I was surprised to find out that this temple, a religious site, did not actually belong to any
one religion. Rather, it is considered an auspicious site for all who come. Upon further research I discovered that religion in Vietnam is actually quite complex. The majority of Vietnamese people draw their beliefs from Mahayana Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. However, these beliefs have fused with Chinese traditions and ancient Vietnamese animism to create a unique religion known as Tam Giao. I genuinely admire how they are able to have such a multitude of beliefs co-exist peacefully. If only the rest of the world could be so accepting.
On our last night in town we had dinner at a hip, dark lit café. Young Vietnamese people and other travelers filled every square foot of the tiny restaurant, creating a mellow, hypnotic vibe similar to the feeling of sitting inside a warm coffee shop on a cold, winter day. We feasted on the Hoi An specialties of sweet, crispy wontons, White Rose rice dumplings filled with shrimp and pork, and Cau Lau, a noodle soup with pork slices, bean sprouts and herbs. Mesmerized by the soft glow of candle light and the ambience we decided to splurge on a glass of red wine and deserts. I had not eaten
many deserts in the past few months (other than Kit Kats and Snickers bars from 7-11) so I was pining for something rich and chocolaty. I couldn’t choose between the deserts in the display case so we ended up with two different types of mousse, which thoroughly satisfied my cravings. As we walked home that evening the town felt magical. The infinite red and purple lanterns that dangle from street lamps all over Hoi An contrasted beautifully against the deep, blue sky.
In the morning we woke up and headed downstairs to catch the shuttle van to the travel agency where we were supposed to catch our bus. We were ready in plenty of time, but the hotel receptionist told us that the bus company had called and asked us to wait for a half hour as they were running late. We thought it strange that the bus company would call our hotel specifically, but there was no reason not to believe her so we obliged. As planned we took the shuttle a half hour later to the bus stop to find an empty station. The bus had left a half hour ago, at its scheduled time. We
were nearly frantic. Due to Tet we had booked our seats weeks ago when we had first arrived in Vietnam. We knew it would be impossible to get a bus for the next several days. After some frantic conversation explaining the situation the bus company called the driver and convinced him to stop the bus right where they were. We jumped in the shuttle van and the driver drove furiously away from town until we saw the double decker up ahead pulled over on the side of a country road. We ran towards the bus, threw our bags on and claimed the last two seats as twenty sets of eyes stared at us, each silently wondering why they were stopped in the middle of nowhere. We never did figure out why the receptionist told us that, but it was a valuable lesson all the same. We will never make that mistake again.
To see more pictures from Hoi An check out: http://www.flickr.com/photos/thejarvisproject
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