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Hoi An to Hue: Three Days Late and 8 Million Dong Short

April 15th, 2011 by and

The events in this  blog post took place in the 2nd week of March 2011. Anyone reading the blog (if there are any) will notice a curiously increasing difference between the posting date and our trip dates… The posts are already written, shoved in notebooks and the back of novels… they’re just waiting to be matched up with photos and given some finishing touches. So we’re going to attempt shoving out the rest of these posts in the next WEEK, before it ends up that we’re home and still writing about crap that no one cares about, the least of all us… Thanks for paying attention. All the photos can be seen here.

“I’m hurtling full speed down Highway 1… in the back of a hired minivan, horn honking constantly, heading up the center line into oncoming traffic. During the war, Highway 1 was said to be dangerous snipers, sappers, ambushes, command-detonated mines, the usual perils of guerilla insurgencies. I can’t imagine it’s an y less dangerous now. Understand this… The thing to do is keep up a constant attack with the horn. A beep means ‘keep doing what you’re doing, change nothing, make no sudden moves, and everything will probably be fine. It does not mean ‘Slow down’ or ‘Stop’ or ‘Move to the right’ or ‘Get out of the way’ If you try to do these things on Highway 1 after hearing a car horn behind you – if you hesitate, look back over your shoulder, slow down, or even falter for a second – you will immediately find yourself in a burning heap of crumpled metal somewhere in a rice paddy. The horn means simply, “I’m here!” – Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour

So… here we were on the same highway, strapped to the back of a couple motorbikes, horns honking all around us as our drivers pulled directly into oncoming traffic to overtake black-smoke-spewing trucks. “Today we go TOP GEAR!” shouted Leo, our motorbike guide, an “Easy Rider”, a name that used to mean something long ago, before anyone with a motorbike and a little English started shuttling tourists around the Central Highlands on the back of motorcycles.

But first, I should backtrack….

IMG_2205There’s a certain conveyor belt feeling to the North-South (or visa versa, I suppose) travel route in Vietnam. Yeah, we’re all on the same path, and we could get (and have gotten) into all sorts of discussions about the beaten path and the no-so-beaten-path and the beaten-to-death-with-a-stick path. But Vietnam is so attuned to getting your tourist dollar that this question almost becomes moot; “traveling independently” is a nice wish at best.

At the same time sometimes you just want to not care about where the tour bus set is going and just have an interesting experience, whatever may come out of it.

Courtney and I have banged our heads against this more often than not here, because of the aforementioned same-same path we’re all on, but also because I have been working so much. It’s easy to get into a routine when you have mounds of work ahead of you; it’s hard to think about much else, let alone what city you’re going to be in the next day.

Ryan’s routine, Vietnam version: Get up, have breakfast, work, maybe some sight-seeing, lunch, work, beers, work, crappy movie on pirated HBO, sleep (can’t sleep? work).

This first became an issue in Nha Trang, a place that normally wouldn’t have held our attention for more than two days, and we were there a few hours shy of a week, which was mostly spent with me huddled over the laptop. Nha Trang was redeemed by a vibrant city just blocks outside the tourist bubble and Vinpearl Land.

But now we had moved on, and after a brief stop in the curiously un-touristy city of Quy Nhon (if you’re heading there, look up the Hai Yen Hotel, those people are the nicest folks ever!) we had arrived in Hoi An.

IMG_2232Hoi An is just wonderful, in a Venice sort of way; by that I mean, it’s effing beautiful, but it’s like Disneyworld. Oh, there’s a real city there buried beneath the postcard-perfect ruinous beauty, but it’s all geared towards your tourist dollar. Every restaurant serves the city’s signature dishes, cao lau, white rose, fried wontons (and we loved every single one), and almost every shop in the Old Town is now a tailor (no joke), to capitalize on some idea that all the great cheap tourists have somehow congregated here.

So after a few days of “what do we do?”, we just embraced it. People come here for cheap tailor made clothes? OK, I got a 3pc suit for dirt cheap (and it’s the most beautiful piece of tailoring I’ve ever seen, I want to sleep at night nuzzled next to it’s silk lining*) and Courtney got a winter coat and some pants. All made in a day, with fittings.

IMG_2257Hoi An is great place to learn about Central Vietnamese cuisine? Sign us up for that cooking Class (@Red Bridge Cooking School; despite not ever cutting up our own veggies or really preparing anything ourselves I’d still recommend it).

You say that the best way to take a tour of Vietnam’s countryside and highlands is by motorbike (AKA with the “EasyRiders”)? Sold.

COURTNEY: The next step in the process was finding a guide that we were comfortable with. After doing some internet research, we stumbled upon “Mr. Leo” who had good reviews and was asking a reasonable price for the three day journey to Hue. He offered (slash…demanded…ignored red flag #1) to meet us the next day to chat about the trip (and then called about four more times that night to “helpfully” remind us to “watch out for fake Easy Rider” -ryan). Mr Leo arrived about four hours early to our hotel for our meeting, red-eyed, cracked out from an all night ride and in need of a night’s sleep. Oh deeearr….

RYAN: Despite our mis-givings about our first meeting (and the fact that we found one horrible review after we had already thrown down a wad of ca$h), we signed up. After all, who among us has been in top form after a night of no sleep and after a handful of Sting (yet another type of heart-stopping energy drink here)? Leo met us after our last visit with our tailor, again early, waiting with the bike and rain gear for us.

Leo & Me w/my badass 150cc clutchless manual 4-speed Yamaha Nuovo. Hell yezzzzzz betches.

We got on the bikes, Courtney riding on the back with Leo,  and set off. Everything went great in the beginning, even Leo’s ploy to have me give a flower to Courtney since it was Woman’s Day in Vietnam (which apparently is the only day that women don’t have to work all day AND do everything at home as well) seemed like a nice gesture even if he was a bit too insistent on it. Then came Leo’s first test as a “guide” when we stopped to see some local ethnic minorities. As we peered awkwardly into their home from the door, Leo’s enlightened us on their way of life: “They do nothing” he said. “What do they eat?” Courtney asked. Leo shrugged.

The real annoyance started when we arrived at our hotel for the night up in the North-Central Highlands. We moved into our room after a weird negotiation session between Leo and the staff. Then we had some beers with him and his hilarious friend “Eddie Murphy”, and even though we had obviously booked with him in the end, the conversation mostly consisted of him talking about how he was a “real” Easy Rider and how he “only worked for charity”, and asking us (more like interrogating) why we talked to others before booking him. We soon learned that even though Leo is over the top with the protection of “his” brand, he wasn’t the only one. Other people on motorbike trips were steered away from talking to us by their drivers (true or not, Leo told us stories about getting into fights with other drivers for letting their clients talk to each other) who seemed fearful that we would chat about prices or which guide was better. In any case, it started to feel like being held hostage; since our guide was not exactly the greatest conversationalist we felt like hanging out with someone, anyone else, yet the other groups or travelers were all being forced to hang out with their driver and ONLY their driver. Lameballs. It seemed that despite the omnipresence of capitalism had wormed their way through Vietnamese culture, these guys hadn’t quite gotten the grasp of the whole competition thing (and the whole “real” vs. “fake” easy Rider thing wasn’t helping).

IMG_2461 Even though out night had been underwhelming we held out some hope; we really didn’t have any other choice. We knew were were visiting an orphanage and Leo had bought some candy to give to them, which we hated the idea of. Instead we headed into the town to pick up schoolbooks and a few shuttlecocks. First we visited the village’s bathing spot, a pretty spectacular set of rapids. Things seemed to be looking up. Then we arrived at the orphanage, where Leo took out the candy along with the things we had bought. Neither of us felt we could deny the kids candy after they saw the bags. I gave the books to the teacher, and then Leo started dictating how many pieces of candy to give to the kids! Needless to say, it was uncomfortable, as was the next stop in the village, where we were swarmed by parents with their naked babies with outstretched hands. We gave out the rest of the candy and toys and wandered off by ourselves, despondent.

IMG_2533 The rest of trip was actually quite great. We started heading through even more beautiful scenery and wonderful backroads, visiting a rubber tree plantation, made awesome by a local who happened to be wandering by and who showed us the rubber coming out, which had the quality of Elmer’s glue. We had a nice lunch, one of the greatest soups we had eaten yet.

When we hit the highway on our way back, Leo actually started showing his talents, and this is what I appreciated most. As busses and trucks roared in and out of oncoming traffic, Leo would guide me with signals and kept us all really safe, despite the reputation of the “Easy Riders” as being more reckless than your average Vietnamese driver. We ended the day with a tour of Marble Mountain by his sister; it’s a truly haunting and beautiful mountain with a temple complex dug right into it and holes in the top from U.S. bombing (China Beach, the 1st place the army landed at, is right outside). Then we had dinner back with Leo’s family and, hoping to not recreate the previous night, said goodbye early and paid a ridiculous sum to hit up a bar in no-so-nearby Danang.

IMG_2655The next morning Courtney and I both rode on the backs of bikes as we headed over the Hai Van Pass, a particularly beautiful and dangerous (much more so in the past) stretch of Highway 1. At the top were several left over bunkers and views South to Danag and north towards Hue, our destination. My driver frequently became impatient with Leo’s more restrained approach towards passing, and several times went around other cars on blind curves, only to be loudly chided by Leo. As we approached Hue, it started raining… and then Leo took us to a hotel that he had connections with (this is the most common “scam” any traveler will face) instead of ours, but then drove us down the street to the hotel we had actually booked. We said farewell, and despite our slight troubles, we felt a twinge of sadness at separating and both gave Leo big hugs.

Cyclo Stalker

Cyclo Stalker

Then we were in Hue. And we were hating it. Not only was this the beginning of actual bad weather (in the highlands one expects some drizzle) but it seemed that this was the sort of city so overrun with tourists that the locals didn’t just dislike tourists, they hated them. When we toured around the citadel cyclo drivers would actually stalk you, hounding you to ride with them.

We left after a day, having stocked up on rain coats… These would come in handy over the next few weeks…

IMG_2318 *Visit Mr. Xe; can’t remember the address, but it doesn’t matter since everyone knows him. He might be the only gay tailor (or “ladyman” as some women we met called him) in Hoi An, of that I’m not sure, but the man does some fine work and he was very concerned that we were happy with the final product. We highly recommend him, as long as you are okay with a small amount of man-handling (not more than the usual, I think?); I may even order a winter coat and have him ship it to the States.

2 Responses to “Hoi An to Hue: Three Days Late and 8 Million Dong Short”

  1. kara says:

    what an adventure!! i would love to ride a badass motorbike around beautiful hillsides, crazy as they sound. that foot bridge courtney is walking across looks SUPER sketchy! glad you’ve survived and seem to be doing well. still can’t wait to have you back here! duh.

    love you guys!

  2. andrea says:

    Great post! i agree with Kara about riding badass motorbikes! Sounds amazing guys!

    miss you!!!



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