Hoi An is a very old, small, and sweet town in the central part of the Vietnam coast. Cobblestone streets give it a European flair, and the tailor shops outnumber the restaurants, quite a feat for a tourist town. This place is known for the plethora of cheap tailors. You can have clothing tailor-made to your body for prices cheaper than clothes off the rack back in America. I became accustomed to the idea of having suits and dresses tailored while in Thailand. There is a healthy choice of tailors in most popular tourist locations since cheap Thai labor = cheap clothes for Westerners. Faren had a few dresses tailored on Phuket and her boyfriend had a few suits made, but I never got into it. Even though I was aware that Hoi An was heavily saturated with tailor shops, I really had no idea HOW bad (or good?) it would be. And, seduced by the wool coats that would be perfect for the cold Seattle winter (which will seem even colder after spending over 6 months in a tropical climate), I ordered one at the first shop I stopped at. By the end of the first day, this was the only article of clothing I had bought, but I had a lot of ideas forming in my head. So the next day, I splurged. The evening before, I had designed 3 cocktail dresses and yet another coat. This one I wanted to be made of "winter white" wool. I put in these orders first, and then over the course of the day and after looking through countless catalogs, I bought several other items, including black leather boots (also designed by myself!). I know that I got a little carried away, but I could justify most things. Especially the shoes, since they are to replace some at home that have been worn to death. And not only have I been resisting most clothing shopping while in Asia (it was finally time to give in), I won't have to do the usual winter clothing shopping trip this year. I think that Hoi An is probably the best place to do some damage because it is so cheap compared to American prices. Plus, this was the most unique shopping spree I may ever have. Not only are the clothes tailored for ME, I got to design half of them. Of course, not everything turned out exactly how I envisioned it, but the tailors did a pretty good job with what they had. In case you are wondering, I had to buy another suitcase before I left Hoi An. So much for my days as a simple backpacker... ;)
Other highlights of Hoi An included a cooking class, bicycle rides, and the beach. While Hoi An may be a small town, we still found it incredibly convenient to ride around on bicycles the whole time. It stopped motortaxi's from constantly hassling us, it helped big-time when we were running back and forth across town to different tailors (I barely caught my bus out of town in time after the tailors frantically hurried to finish the alterations on my cocktail dresses), and most of all, it was so much fun! One afternoon we rode the bikes out to the beach, just a few miles away from the town center, and explored one of the many fancy resorts. The beach on that part of the coast was very similar to those in the tourist areas of Mexico--long stretches of white sand and perfectly placed palm trees. Very picturesque.
For 8 USD, Faren and I partook in our own private Vietnamese cooking class. We were each allowed to choose three dishes. Our teachers made sure the class was very hands-on so it would turn into a cooking demonstration rather than a class. We were quite impressed with how complicated yet simple the dishes were. There were many different ingredients and steps, but it all went so fast and the same ingredients seemed to be repeated in many of the dishes. The food was incredibly delicious, and I can't wait to show off my new cooking skills for my friends and family when I return home.
From Hoi An, I had a 16 hour bus ride (!!!) up to Hanoi. I was prepared for the worst, so the ride was not as bad as I'd anticipated. I think it helps that after many overnight bus and train rides, I am becoming more accustomed to sleeping in odd places.
I've found that Hanoi is not quite as enjoyable as Saigon. The people are more likely to stare coldly at you in the North than give you a friendly wave and smile, like they did in the South. And to make matters worse, almost every person with whom we've had a "business" transaction has tried to rip us off or get more money out of us in some way. From our hotel to cyclo drivers to motortaxi drivers to fruit vendors. It was a pain when when the motortaxi driver demanded more money than the price we had agreed on, after he had driven us through the city, but it was a ROYAL pain in the butt when our hotel tried to charge us more money at check-out because we had failed to book any tours with them. Faren and I are more concerned with the principle of the matter, that they are dishonest and trying to cheat us, than with the actual loss of a few dollars. We always insist on sticking up for ourselves, instead of being dumb tourists whom everyone takes advantage of. In this case with our hotel, we had to put up a pretty big fight to get them back to the right price, especially because they had already taken my money and were refusing to give back change. We got the money back in the end, but it left a bad taste in our mouths.
We went on a 2 day trekking adventure up in the Northern hills of Vietnam. It was absolutely gorgeous, albeit overcast and rainy. The low clouds gave the mountains a mystical presence, and when the fog cleared up, the hills seemed to possess every shade of green. Rice paddies as far as the eye can see are accented by the occasional river, stream, or waterfall. Cows can be seen roaming about as frequently as the children. Men and women, adorned in the traditional conical bamboo hat, slowly move through the fields, which are built like ledges into the giant hills making for an interesting geometric pattern in the landscape. We were at a high altitude, so the temperature was cooler than we were used to. But all of the hiking kept us warm. One day, it was so muddy that our feet were literally heavy from the mud caked to our shoes. Every step I took left my entire foot submerged in the soft, red ground. The local people sold us bamboo sticks, which I stubbornly refused to purchase until I took one look at the steep, extremely muddy hill we were about to traverse. When we started out on the trek, we could not figure out why a whole band of local woman and children were tagging along, but after they literally held our hands to help us across rivers, down slick hills, and along treacherous ledges over steep cliffs, we quickly understood. And we understood even more when they offered their homemade goods--earrings, purses, clothing--for sale at the end of the day. How are you going to say no to a woman who has held your hand all day? I could have made it perfectly fine without the extra help, but I didn't really have a choice in the matter. The locals were dead-set on helping us, whether or not we truly wanted (or needed) the assistance. Would have been a sweet gesture if it was not actually a shrewed business tactic.
Halong Bay, meaning "Bay of the Descending Dragon," is a UNESCO World Heritage site about 3 hours outside of Hanoi. The first tour we booked to this famous tourist attraction was a 2 day tour, but halfway there, our minibus turned around because a typhoon had hit the bay and it was no longer safe. Since a group of scuba divers were recently killed in Thailand after their boat capsized during a storm, we were grateful that the tour company decided to lose money rather than put our lives at risk. Needless to say, they had tried pretty hard to make it work in any event. Our van was the only one (out of many) that actually made the attempt, which was frusterating since it had resulted in a 4 hour car ride to nowhere. We elected to take the night train to Sapa that evening for trekking, with the hope that the weather would improve over the next few days, and in time for us to see Halong before our visas expired on Saturday. We arrived back from Sapa at 5 am on Friday morning, groggily found a hotel to take a quick nap and shower, and boarded another minibus to Halong Bay at 8 am for a one-day tour this time, since we had to be out of the country by the next day.
Luckily, the sun was shining and the bay was beautiful for our tour. In Halong Bay, thousands of massive steep, limestone structures rise spectacularly out of the ocean, like the top of a jagged mountain range. During the boat ride, we saw floating fishing villages where we could buy all sorts of shellfish and fish, with the option of having the boat crew cook it for us immediately. My favorite stop of the day was at one of the many hollow islands, where there were caves so incredible it was difficult to believe they were not man-made. In a corner of one of the massive grottos, two gaping holes in the "ceiling" allowed sharp rays of sunlight into the dark abyss, so it looked as though we were witnessing the grandest stairway to heaven. It was one of those phenomenons you thought only existed in the movies.
As I write this, it is Saturday, September 29th, the day that our Vietnamese visas expire. We leave on a 20 hour bus ride this evening to Laos, a country that has been widely recommended to me by every traveller whom has ever visited. According to Lonely Planet, Laos' isolation from foreign influence offers travellers an unparalleled glimpse of traditional Southeast Asian life. From the fertile lowlands of the Mekong River valley to the rugged Annamite highlands, Laos is the highlight of Southeast Asia. I can hardly wait!