We arrive in Hoi An early morning, at 9am. It’s already very hot, it feels like its 90 degrees. We check into a hotel, and relax for most of the afternoon, tired from our crazy 14-hour bus ride for the previous night.
Hoi An’s old town has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999. Hoi An stands for “peaceful meeting place”, as it used to be a center of trade in the 16th century. It also is home to 300 tailor shops; you can’t walk 12 feet without someone asking you if you want to have a custom suit made. For many of the visiting Europeans on holiday here, it’s a great deal to have a custom suit made for $80.
That evening Dev and I go to a couchsurfing event. Couchsurfing is a community of world travelers, who either offer their own couch for other travelers to crash on, or find a couch to crash on. It may sound scary at first, but it is safe, and the site uses a lot of tools so the host and guest can review each other. In this case, we are just meeting to socialize; every big city usually has someone hosting a couchsurfing local event. We meet at a local restaurant called OM, which I thought would have Indian food. It didn’t. =\ I met Richard from Belgium, a local named Levy (expat from Europe), and later on a few more Europeans and one local Vietnamese woman. We have casual conversation over a few beers, everyone exchanging information about their travels. We have one conversation about schools and education in Germany, and I learn about issues from another developed nation. We leave that evening around 10:30. I’m feeling more tired than I should be; I’m beginning to catch the same cold that Dev has.
Saturday morning we lounge in the hotel, staying out of the heat as much as we can. We step out to go have lunch at a vegan restaurant. We spend 2 hours there because the service is slow, ordering one delicious entree after another, and having breaks in between.
Later in the evening we go to Old Town and visit the UNESCO World Heritage sites. First we visit a Chinese Assembly Hall, which has this interesting spiraling incense I really like.
We go to a family chapel, which appeared reverent at first, but quickly became more like a tour through a gift shop. Tourist trap!
After, we see the old Japanese bridge .
That evening we try to eat Indian food at Ganesh, but they are full, so we walk about a half mile away to another Indian restaurant where we are the only customers – pretty easy to get off the beaten path here. It was nice to enjoy some samosas, naan, daal, and saag paneer. The saag in this region so far is quite watery. The owner was a nice Vietnamese man, and was able to make good conversational chit chat.
On Sunday we visit two more sites. We walk along the calm, charming street.
We run into a woman on the street, who asks for money in exchange for a photo. Dev pays her and gets this snap:
We visit a communal house, run by two charming old men. Despite not knowing English, they were able to guide us around, and point out that the site was where Indian traders used to come centuries ago, sleeping in this communal house (they especially point this out to us because we are Indian). Even then, the world was pretty connected.
After lunch, we head to Hue via a 4-hour bus ride. Through one of the people at the couchsurfing event we find out about a brand new hostel, which just opened yesterday! We plan on staying there.
Hue is referred to as the intellectual and spiritual capital of Vietnam, according to Lonely Planet. I’m excited to find out what this means.
We spent two nights in Hue, at the brand new Tigon Hostel. We are the first customers to check in since the official opening on the 10th. Consequently, we have a 10-bed dorm all to ourselves both nights.
I develop a stuffy nose in addition to my sore throat. I also notice some heat rashes on my arms and chest; I suspect that the doxy malaria pills are giving me these side effects. I also had a headache one night, which is not normal for me. I stop taking the pill, hoping these side effects will go away. Malaria pills aren’t necessary in big cities like this anyway. The side effects go away in a few days.
We leave the hostel to go to dinner to a highly-reviewed vegetarian restaurant. Every few minutes Dev and I get approached by guys on motor bikes or rickshaws trying to sell us weed or “boom boom”‘, a code term for prostitutes. It’s annoying to deal with someone coming over every two minutes asking us the same question, repeatedly, hoping we would change our mind or something. We finally get to the restaurant and have a delightful meal. Below is an appetizer with a variety of tofu.
During our 2nd day Dev and I plan to rent a motorbike to ride around the area. As I’m having breakfast at the hostel, I meet Andy, the hostel owner, and Thomson, the hostel manager. They greet us excitedly as we are their first customers. Both are great to converse with. Andy explains some details about life in Vietnam, running a hostel business, paying for electricity and water, etc. I also meet a 26 year old Israeli man who has been working in Hanoi for a few months, now having to leave the country and re-enter to get a new visa. We talk for a bit over breakfast about life; he talks about the challenge/pressure of not following the usual path of getting a university degree, followed by a good job, followed by getting married and having kids.
Two hours later Dev and I then go our for lunch, and find a vegetarian restaurant where locals go. We ate a full meal for 10,000 dong each, or 50 cents. It was good, and a steal for the price!
We then hop on our motorbike and ride over to the Thien Mu pagoda. On the way, a local pulls up next to us on his motorbike, while we’re cruising at 30 km/h. He makes small chat with us; tells us he’s an engineer too. He asks if we want to grab a beer, but we tell him we are going to the pagoda. He says goodbye and zooms away.
At the steps of the Thien Mu pagoda is the beautiful Perfume River, with interesting long, low-lying boats passing by.
The steps to enter the pagoda.
I walk around the grounds, and it’s all very tranquil. I feel so relaxed, so happy to be here.
Walking further ahead, I’m surprised to see an antique car. Why is this car here at the pagoda?
I look above the car, and realize I’m looking at one of the most famous photos of all time. Thich Quang Duc immolating himself. He immolated himself in 1963 in front of the Cambodian Embassy in Saigon, to protest the oppression of Buddhism by the South Vietnamese. He sat there, and lit himself on fire. Police tried to get to him, but he was protected by a circle of his fellow Buddhist clergymen. During this whole time he is on fire, he never moved, flinched a muscle, or made a sound. That is deep meditation. Some people around him, including a policeman, began prostrating to him in reverence.
Initially you may see this as suicide. But it is meant to be an act of compassion, making a great sacrifice to protect Buddhism. And it did get a lot of attention.
After standing there for a few minutes, I take a deep breath and continue walking around the temple, doing walking meditation around the paths amongst the trees.
After seeing the pagoda we set out for seeing the Royal Tombs. Instead we somehow get lost for an hour, following an inaccurate map. We find two other tombs along the way.
By 5pm we finally reach the Royal Tombs, but its 5pm, and they just closed. We leave. We again get lost on the way back home. We stop for gas. Dev asks me to check if the gas station has WiFi. I laugh at him. It does. I load up Google Maps. Before you say we are over-reliant on technology, we were getting lost despite asking locals for directions along the way. Maybe we don’t know how to ask for directions well? We get back to our hostel, and prepare to leave Hue the next morning.
Next post: We head to Phong Na to experience the great caves of Vietnam.