Our ten dollar, 135 km trip from Hue south to Hoi An was by tour bus. It stopped several times along the way and was a good introduction to the area. First up was the Thanh Toan Japanese Bridge in a small market village about 7 km from Hue. Lovely place and worth the half hour we spent there.
We headed south past endless beaches and fields, with wartime bunkers jutting out of flooded rice paddies. Then it was a climb from sea level up the 21 km Hai Van Pass to the wonderful sweeping views over the East Vietnam (aka South China) Sea from its 1500 ft. summit. Hai Van is a strategic choke point between north and south Vietnam and is the site of military fortifications since ancient times. We had about 45 minutes to explore the area. The steep pass is a favourite for motorcyclists and if I was younger, braver and knew how to ride a motorbike I’d want to give it a try.
From there we headed down past Da Nang with remnants of wartime bunkers lining its famous airport’s runways. We stopped at Marble Mountains (US$ 2.50 admission) which was an active quarry until quite recently. There are five Marble Mountains but only one is open. We took the elevator up Water Mountain which is riddled with caves, grottoes and shrines. From there we headed for the immense Danang Sculpture Foundation. If you ever want a large Greek-god-style statue of yourself, this is the place. They ship worldwide. Last stop was at VietPearl, a big-box scale jewelry store at the Lo Bac Resort. We were weak and splurged on a couple of pearl necklaces.
The bus dropped us at Flame Flowers, our Hoi An homestay. Homestays are common in Vietnam and are the result of a government program that allows people to develop their homes as small hotels. Flame Flowers has four floors and a very hospitable host family. They provided breakfast and free bicycles which we used for a trip to An Bang Beach and around town. They were very helpful in arranging tours and recommending restaurants. Homestays are a good arrangement and we enjoyed meeting all our hosts.
Hoi An is a tourist town with a Unesco designated old town area — which we never did see — plus narrow cobbled streets and an extensive night market. The inner harbour lights up at night with dozens of lantern-lit boats lit waiting to take you out. A lovely place but thoroughly touristic.
Our hosts helped us to book the tour and next morning we headed out by scooter to Coconut Village and a basket-boat ‘eco-tour’ of the area. The wind caught us while rounding a corner in the reeds and, while grabbing for her hat, my wife managed to fling her phone into the water. Our young guide stopped the boat immediately and asked some young men swimming nearby to look for it. Miraculously, after about 10 minutes of diving down and feeling around, one of them emerged with her Android G8 in hand. And it still worked! Amazing! We gave them a good (unsolicited) tip and everyone went away happy. I should emphasize: they helped us very enthusiastically and out of kindness. Nice people. It was a good experience.
It was back to shore for an enormous lunch, another scooter ride back to Flame Flowers and one more visit to the night market. Our next destination was Da Nang to catch an overnight train to Ninh Binh, southwest of Hanoi. We booked a tour bus that would stop for a cable car ride up to the Ba Na Hills with its huge medieval French village and Golden Bridge, up in the clouds above Da Nang. This was an expensive excursion (C$100 each) and not at all worth it as the entire day was spent in heavy fog and mist with the bridge barely visible. It was capped off with a buffet lunch after which we got lost in the fog of the “village.” We eventually found our group, took the cable car down to the bus and were deposited at the small Da Nang train station for the overnight sleeper car journey north.
The train journey was not pleasant. We were in a very old car, sharing a compartment with two other men. There was no privacy, the car was not clean, there were cockroaches scuttling about and the toilet was odouriferous. We did manage to sleep — the rocking of the train is quite soothing — and were happy to disembark at Ninh Binh early the next morning. All things considered, Hoi An had been an overly touristic low point but things were about to get better.