Hoi An, Danang and Quy Nhon, South Central Vietnam
10.12.2009 - 16.12.2009 30 °C
After three nights in Hue, we caught the train to Danang, a scenic two-hour journey over the Hai Van Pass. On arrival at Danang Train Station we immediately took a local bus, for just 10,000 dong, to Hoi An which is close to Danang but not on the rail network. I must say we felt very smug knowing that most travellers don't seem to be aware of this bus and pay an exorbitant US$10, sometimes more, to taxis and hotel transfers to reach Hoi An, less than 30km away!
Hoi An was a strategic port for Vietnam in the 16th and 17th centuries when it was known as Faifo. It is now much more focused on the tourist trade, but has definitely retained its historic feel especially in the relaxed old town: its charming old buildings, paint peeling; narrow streets and picturesque riverside, lined with shops restaurants and galleries; pretty painted fishing boats moored in the river with boatswomen calling out to passersby to take a boat ride on their sampans.
The town has many old wooden merchant houses full of character with their large rooms and open areas and lovely teak wooden stairs showing extensive areas on both the ground and upper levels. They are now mainly galleries or museums. Unfortunately these amazing hardwood bannisters and stairways are not easily captured with a tiny camera so this is the only image that gives a hint of these old houses.
Hoi An is, of course, renowned for its tailors and indeed every second store displays its own take on the latest fashion - some better than others, many same same... After hearing horror stories about difficulties encountered with getting clothes made up I decided not to risk it as in the end we were only going to be in Hoi An for two nights (again due to the high season), which would not be enough time to select and consult with a tailor anyway.
Catching the local bus back to Danang, a city more popular with business travellers than tourists, we spent a night there and took in the famed Museum of Cham Sculpture, home of the largest collection of Cham art in the world and housed in a museum founded by the École Française d'Extrême Orient in 1915. Gathered from many different Cham sites around the country, each room represents an area of discovery and contains linga, statues of Vishnu, Siva and Brahma, as well as the sacred symbols embodied in the form of elephant gods, lions, dragons, sacred bulls, monkey kings and garudas; the Indian influence is apparent.
As a child, I would watch the story of the Ramayana which was shown on television on Sunday mornings in Durban, where I lived for a few years, and was fascinated by the culture and mysticism, and this visit brought back memories of the stories I watched and loved.
In my opinion, the main reason to visit Danang is to see the world famous Museum of Cham Sculpture. However, they say that you can find good food here and we did go to a popular restaurant down the road from our hotel where we enjoyed squid, prawns sauteed in butter and garlic, and beef in chilli but we were only there for a day so didn't really experience much more of what Danang has to offer.
Needing a break from the constant hotel-swapping and the touristy areas, and perhaps also craving a beach holiday, we took the train soft-seat to Quy Nhon, a smallish town a six hour train journey south of Danang; capital of Binh Dinh Province, and once an important site of the Cham civilisation.
The soft seat carriages are quite comfortable. Padded seats often with a blanket provided to protect you from the unremittant air conditioning are allocated, and there is good space for luggage above. Food is ferried past on trolleys at regular intervals, as well as drinks and snacks. Vietnamese comedy, live performances and the odd movie are broadcast intermittently at a very high volume on two tv screens in the centre of the carriage, each pointing in the opposite direction so that all can see and hear. So best to bring earplugs along in case.
We had decided to treat ourselves and stayed at the gorgeous Hoang Anh Resort in Quy Nhon, set right on the beach with a stunning, clear blue pool and spacious rooms with a large balcony complete with table and chairs so that you can look at the sea view. It was lovely to listen to the roar of the waves at night lying in bed, if we didn't have the air-conditioning on, that is! There were not many people there so it was wonderfully secluded and we felt very pampered by the hotel staff: poolside service with lunch sitting in the shade under the coconut palms, sipping our... fresh coconut juice! Or lying on the loungers soaking up the sun, or lolling in the pool looking over at the South China Sea, the pool water a perfect temperature. Ah heaven, so balmy!
We ate in the hotel dining room, often the only guests there, and the prices were very reasonable, generally about 100,000 dong for a main meal. We liked the seabass with aubergine and a delicate sauce, and the chilli green aubergine stewed in oil and sprinkled with dried shrimp, and of course the noodle dishes. We had fun catching the local bus a couple of times into Quy Nhon centre and we did go and have the most delicious fish and chips at "Bar Bar Ra's", the backpacker stalwart in Quy Nhon. Anyway, we just generally caught up on ourselves, it was well deserved.
Quy Nhon is at the centre of a range of Cham sites, which is the main thing that attracted us here after our appetites were whetted by the Danang Museum. Unfortunately the Cham sights are quite scattered from one another and to see them all one would again need to be able to ride a motorbike and negotiate the hectic roads, or alternatively you can pay a tour company US$50 to be driven in a bus. We decided upon the lazy (and cheap) way out and took a local bus. No one seemed to know anything about or be able to give us any information on the bus system there which is a pity for the budget traveller as it certainly is an option. After simply climbing on one bus and pointing to a place on the map, we were taken to the Thap Doi Cham Towers in the centre of Quy Nhon. There are two of them and they stand beautifully out of place in the bustling city, set in a grassy green park, still retaining some of their carvings and statues. They were a good introduction to Cham architecture for us, although I am sad that we did not make it up to My Son to see much more of these wonderful towers.
Regrettably it was eventually time to move on, away from this idyllic haven. We bought tickets to Saigon on the Golden Train, the local slower train that leaves from Quy Nhon's little out of the way station, as opposed to the more commonly used Reunification Express which departs from Dieu Tri, about 10kms and a 100,000 dong taxi ride away from Quy Nhon. It was an overnight sleeper again and actually the same standard as all over Vietnam.