Sunday, June 27, 2010

Danang, Hoi An, and Cua Dai (Vietnam)

Hanoi to Danang wins hands down as the sketchiest train ride we have been on so far. Starting off with having to buy black market tickets due to availability, the only bit of luck we had was they were soft sleeper (4-person berth) instead of the expected hard sleeper (6-person berth), and we did not have to change berths in the middle of the night as suggested. However, this time there were visible cockroaches (German cockroaches - even though I tried hard not to notice them), which I suspect were encouraged by the waste basket under the table and probably not helped by the hygiene of our cabin mates, a backpacker couple of the hard-partying hippie stereotype (greasy clothes, dirty feet, and drinking grain alcohol chased with valium). The train also would periodically jolt to a brief stop, and we suspected at least one of these times, it must have hit something or someone.

Danang is a big city in central Vietnam, but we were really only there to catch a taxi to Hoi An, which Rich did for a respectable price with A/C.

Hoi An is a picturesque river town, and we happened to catch it on one of the Full Moon Nights. The streets of the Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) are closed to motorized traffic, and all the restaurants and shops are lit with candles and Chinese-style lanterns. Everyone is out walking around, and the street vendors are selling candles in paper lanterns that you can buy and send floating down the river. It looks very pretty, but I did not want to buy partly because it is such a tourist trap and partly because it was essentially littering (and Vietnam, although not as bad as some places, already has its fair share). We did buy a patty that ladies were grilling over charcoal on the sidewalk (sweet potato, coconut, and ginger - a little on the dry side).

Rich got into the real business of Hoi An: tailoring. That's right, he's "Mr. Couture" now. Shop after shop in Hoi An is filled with custom tailors where you choose your fabrics, pick your designs, and new clothes can be ready in as little as 24 hours. Rich got a suit and three shirts made. The shirts were a good deal since, even at the first fitting, you could tell they already fit better than anything he has ever gotten in the store without also paying for alterations. The suit was probably because we were getting a little carried away, but a man needs more than one suit, especially if he expects to get a real job some day. With additional fittings, the entire process took about 48 hours. He looks pretty sharp!

The Old Town in Hoi An also has several ancient buildings you can visit with the same pass. A couple included a guide who gave a brief tour (nice) but who then made it a point to try to sell you some specific trinket (not so nice). The handicrafts museum had artisans demonstrating how they make the Chinese lanterns, wood carvings, and embroidery. We also managed to catch an exhibition of traditional Vietnamese songs and dances. One of which involved ladies passing out what looked liked fans in the audience. We were not going to be tricked into buying that one, that's for sure! Unfortunately, the joke was on us, since, during the following piece, the singers were calling out the written characters on the "fans," and the fans were actually more like tickets for a free door prize. One of the winners even received a Chinese lantern, which we had been hoping to buy anyway!

One day we rented a pair of cheap but rickety bikes from a lady who made me hold her baby while she unlocked them. Cua Dai beach is about 5 km down the road in the gauntlet that is Vietnam traffic (although in all fairness, traffic in Hoi An is laughable compared to the death-defying trek it is in Hanoi). Seafood restaurants line the beach and will rent out chairs under umbrellas to you. Our section of the beach was pretty quiet, and the water was very calm if not quite as warm as it had been in Halong Bay. Unfortunately, we were not able to have the big seafood blowout we were hoping to for lunch since the prices were extortionate. I made the mistake of ordering what I thought would be fish spring rolls. Instead, a whole fish (very fishy-tasting and boney) and the rice paper to wrap it came to our table. We are fairly at ease now with wrapping our own rolls, but it is challenging when you are taking apart a whole fish with only chopsticks and also trying not to let the rice paper blow away in the wind!

Other regional specialties we have sampled included white rose (shrimp steamed in rice paper), cau lau (fried noodles with pork, bean sprouts, and cracklin' croutons over salad greens), and crab fried with tamarind (which I have to admit was pretty good despite my usually strict standards of not ruining crab by mixing it with anything else). Bonus: the crab had eggs in it - Yummy!

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