Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Who Stole the Sole?

We were on our way to Hoi An, reputed to be one of the prettiest towns in Vietnam; old cobbled streets, colonial French architecture and HQ to the best tailors in the country, but first we made a flying visit to Hue, Vietnams old Capital and home of the Citadel of the Nguyen emperors and the Forbidden City.

Hue, (pronounced Hway as in "Haway the lads") is a fairly laid back but not particularly attractive town with mostly drab concrete utilitarian buildings set along the (deceivingly) romantically named Perfume River. It is however easy to forgive them this, as being very close to the North-South divide it was the site of some of the worst bombings in the US/Vietnam Conflict and some gruesome mass executions by the VC. Much of the city incurred the full wrath of American fire power, including a lot of the old monuments central to the history of city. Reconstruction is still taking place across the town and when we visited the Forbidden city and Palace parts if it were actually being worked on to restore it to its former glory. Nevertheless, the Citadel and the Forbidden City and Palace (located in its centre) remains very impressive and still evokes much of the sense of power and ceremony that must have existed there when the Nguyen Emperors ruled.

The following afternoon we headed on to Hoi An on one of Vietnams super efficient buses, passing en route the notorious battle sites Da Nang and China Beach. In stark contrast to Hue, Hoi An is as attractive a town as you could hope to find in Vietnam; incredibly quaint, with beautiful old houses crammed into a maze of streets. Cafes, restaurants, art and jewelery boutiques make up literally every other building, and there's a bustling row of food stalls with superb fresh produce and seafood straight from the market just fifty metres away.

We arrived in the evening when the town looks at its best - everything lit up with rows of red lanterns hanging from the facades of shops and houses, and restaurants filled with the scent of Vietnamese cooking. We also managed to stumble on a specialist wine cafe where we ended up ploughing through a few bottles of Bordeaux with a couple honeymooning at one of the expensive resorts on the edge of town. By the look on their faces when told them we were paying twelve pounds a night for a smart hotel with pool I gathered they they were probably paying ten times as much - even we had been surprised at just how cheap good accommodation is in Vietnam.

The next morning we set out on bikes to check out the town properly, which by the light of day was totally different. Although still quaint, we both felt it somewhat resembled a vintage version of Bicester Village Retail Park in places (but without the kids in Kappa tracksuits smoking their mums Bensons in the car park). Being a UNESCO heritage site you get the sense that the town is somewhat fossilised, which in some respects is great as it retains its old appeal, but the downside is that it feels very touristy and a little artificial. However, it does have some of the best cooking we found in Vietnam and as ever we were more than happy to while away the afternoons in restaurants or down at one of the street stalls; one of which produced the best Shrimp Wantons either of us had ever had - so good we went back three times.

Hoi An is also a lager drinkers paradise. It's not often you can go out with a pound, get eight pints of lager and still come home with change for a Wagonwheel. At those prices it could well be the next big Stag party destination, if groups of hammered blokes were into buying pashminas and handmade Mangowood tableware in between bars that is...

Anyway, the sun had finally reappeared with a vengeance and we were now well into the Southern half of Vietnam. Sams S.A.D had miraculously disappeared (personally I put it down to the healing power of cheap lager), so we headed on for Nha Trang - Vietnams big, brash seaside town for a few days of kicking back on the beach. Pulling into town at five AM it seemed strange to see locals on the promenade doing Thai Chi, out jogging and exercising - clearly they get up early here we thought, but by nine AM it was easy to see why - temperatures had soared to plus thirty and by lunchtime it was so hot that you could barely stay out for more than an hour without looking like Michael Winner in a Sauna.

Several people had said to us that they hadn't liked Nha Trang, that they found it too commercial and developed, but as ever these things are subjective and we both took took a liking to the place. Yes it is built up and modern, and little old style architecture exists but its not pretending to be anything else and we've both found that despite the general preference of travellers toward rural environments all the cities we've been to we've had a great time in. I guess we're more urbanite than we thought!

For a big city, Nha Trang has a surprisingly good beach - clean, golden sand with turquoise blue water and a good inland wind making it a kitesurfers paradise. There are also two superb upmarket beach hangouts; Nha Trang Sailing Club and The Louisiana Brewhouse, which is as far as I know is the only micro-brewery on a beach in Asia. Of course there was some sampling to be done so I ordered the full Beer selection menu and had my first pint of Ale in nearly five months. On balance, I'm still pretty sure Ale tastes better in a decent English pub with a pickled egg on a hazy Autumn Sunday afternoon, but I wasn't complaining. So, we went posh for a few days and got waited on hand and foot while lazing by the pool and on Saturday night hit the mega beach party that the Sailing Club puts on, and had our first encounter with South East Asias notorious "Buckets", which are essentially a bucket or massive jar loaded with whisky/vodka and red bull.

Now, its pretty plain to anyone that hard liquor is not meant to be drank out of litre buckets but we didn't want to be rude obviously. Unsurprisingly it turned out to be a fairly wild night of dancing on the beach which involved me getting into an absurd argument with an even drunker French man who stole my flip flops (I'm sure there's a joke about a French man and flips flops?) and me then trying to rip them off his feet while he tried to run away. Myself and a new Canadian compadre tried to hunt him down unsuccessfully (mainly down to the fact that neither of us could see straight), so, alas that was the end of my authentic Brazilian Hiavanas...goodbye my friends, you have served me well. I hope you enjoy your new home on a smelly Frenchmans feet.

If you were to rate hangovers on a scale of one to ten, then the following morning would probably be about a fourteen. I was unable to leave the room for a whole day and in the words of Withnail felt like "a pig shat in my head". It was pretty evident that we had not been consuming buckets of Grey Goose and Highland Park, probably more like formaldehyde and ethanol, but a good party is a good party and I'll always treasure those four hours that I can't remember from the night before...

We did eventually pull ourselves out of our self induced pits of despair, and before we left for our next destination had time to fit in an afternoon at the mud baths (see pics for attractive couple looking like they're covered in cow shit), visit the marine life centre and also eat possibly the best fish and chips ever, made with beer-battered fresh Sturgeon cooked by an Aussie Ex-pat who looked disturbingly like Alf from Home and Away. Maybe it was a little more exotic than the traditional Cod, but sometimes all you need after a big night out is good old fish and chips...

View our pics here:

Hue, Hoi An & Nha Trang

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