Da Nang and Hoi An, Vietnam, May 28-31, 2010

We spend a lovely Vesak weekend visiting two coastal towns in the central Vietnam, Da Nang and Hoi An. During the Vietnam War (which Vietnamese, of course, call the American War) Da Nang used to host a major American Air Base, and still one of its most advertised tourist attractions (at least and unfortunately for us Westerners) is China Beach, which was used as rest and recreation resort of wounded American soldiers during the war. Nowadays the beach is a line of construction sites as new beach resorts are popping up after and next to one another.

Unlike our recent travels this time we leave home really early in the morning, not late at night, and land on the sizzling Vietnamese ground well before the noon. We have Sunriver hotel's welcome drinks (only watermelon juice is available) on the 9th floor cafe, and enjoy the calm and quiet for a short moment, and the great view over the Han River.

Then we hit the riverside promenade which is deserted at this time of the day --- the sun from the clear blue sky is merciless and it is damn hot! We walk all the way to the Cham Museum, the only real tourist attraction in town. The museum is really interesting preparation for our later visit to My Son, a cluster of ancient Hindu temples that once served as a worship site for Champa Kingdom, as well as burial place of their royalty. As we learn later, Champas are originally Indians, and they used My Son merely for religious ceremonies, not as homestead.
We get thirsty from the heat, and buy our first 1.5 liter water bottle at the museum. We can't keep track of how many we consume thereafter --- the number must be in double digits after our four-day trip is over. Silkair's breakfast is not too delicious and nutritious to keep us satiated for this long, so we are super hungry, too. After leaving the museum we head south past several open-air restaurants, but none of them looks particularly inviting until we pass one with white table clothes, and give it a try. The place is called Truyen Tam, and they have an English menu. We order a steamed snake head (fish) and a couple of La Rue beers. The fish comes with herbs and vegetables, and some rice paper to wrap them in and dip in the accompanying chili sauce. Super delicious! However hungry we are, we make no effort to rush through the lunch.
We continue south to what is marked as Centre Park in our map. We stop for drinks --- coffee for Tei and bright green pineapple drink for Tomi --- at a place called New World Cafe, a shady outdoor place nested in trees and small fish ponds. A guy comes to talk to us, which make us immediately ill at ease and a bit defensive, as we think him as one of those vendors that try to befriend tourists in order to sell them something. However, this one introduces him as a manager of the place. We don't have much to say, neither does he -- very embarrassing situation --- so he soon leaves. Perhaps, this time we could have been nicer.
We walk all the way to the monument of ... well, a monument ... passing a number of "palaces" that look like wedding venues, all shiny and white and remodelled as ancient Greek or Italian structures. We never find the park but a lot of wasteland in its place.

We turn back to the hotel ... passing a number of furniture shops and local coffee shops that look like garages, with a bar in the back and a lot of empty space in front filled with parked motorcycles. We also attract a lot of attention from the locals, especially kids --- even the smallest ones that can't yet speak stop to stare at us bug-eyed mumbling something like 'hi!' or 'hello!'.

The evening in Da Nang is a bit of a disappointment. We follow the river promenade north in look for a place for dinner. We don't find anything interesting and have to check the address of a pizza place mentioned in our Rough Guide. The place is so smoky and the Western menu so unappetizing that we keep looking.

We end up in one place near to our hotel. We order a couple of salads and bottles of Tiger beer. However, they say they don't have bottles, so we agree on cans. They bring us bottles, and one of the salads. After finishing both, we are ready to pay --- we naturally assume that they forgot the other salad. The mess starts when we try to explain that we have been waiting for the salad forever and just want to get out. This is something they can't understand since we still have some food coming, some food that we don't really want anymore. Right then the salad appears and we eat it. And pay. And leave.

We return to our hotel's bar on the 9th floor, which is nice and quiet, and a bit dark though. We order Spring rolls and a Thai beef salad with some wine. We realize that even if in general the menus and signs are in English in this city, the language skills of locals seldom meet the same standard. If there is no problem with the order, then everything goes well, but if there are any complications, then it is hard to resolve. And we are usually the ones to give up first ... at least we understand there's no way out, and we don't want to hurt anyone, unless we feel someone is blatantly trying to screw us up.

We start the Saturday at 6am. with a 7K run on the riverside promenade. Even if the market is already buzzing, the promenade is empty. Afterwards we have a scrumptious breakfast at our hotel cafe on the 9th floor.

It is time to say goodbye to Da Nang as the taxi take us to China Beach and Marble Mountains, and then to Hoi An. We just cruise past China Beach and its constructions sites, and the driver grants us an hour to visit the Marble Mountains, all for 60USD total. We have all the fun climbing the stairs up and down visiting the caves and pagodas, even if the marble steps are quite slippery, and we are perspiring profusely.

The hotel we stay in Hoi An, Nhi Nhi Hotel, is a funny place. It seems to be run by a group of very young and cheerful women who are also super friendly and helpful. Apparently, they are also eager to practise their English language skills since they take every opportunity to chat with us --- when we are waiting for the breakfast to be served or the taxi to take us back to the airport, or even our room to be made upon arrival when we are really ready to have shower and soon. But there we are sitting in the lobby, sipping sweet iced tea (which, by the way, tastes like Finnish mead) chit chatting with our lovely and curious Vietnamese hostess.
Even Hoi An is much smaller than Da Nang, there is much more to do; the old town is full nice little restaurants, museums, boutiques and galleries. The biggest difference though is the more relaxed life style, which comes with less traffic, less cars and motorcycles (no motorized vehicles allowed in some parts of the old town), which also means less noise. It is also off-season, so there are not too many tourists around either.
We don't do much else but stroll the streets of the old town, stopping for food or drinks every now and then. It is really hot, and we consume huge amounts of liquids, and still feel dehydrated. We have dinner at White Marble Wine Cafe. For 12 USD per person we order a set meal for two, including glasses of wine: mango salad, calamari, chicken with cashews, herb crusted fish poached in a banana leaf with steamed vegetables and rice. We follow the river bank back to our hotel. At this time the locals have set up their makeshift kitchens with low dining tables and stools by the river, and are now selling simple dinner meals. The farther from the town center we go, the more crowded these places are.
Next morning the alarm goes off at 4:30am, and the van picks us up at 5:15am to take us to My Son. The ride takes an hour, and travels through agricultural landscape, mostly rice fields. We are probably the second tourist group reaching the world heritage site that morning. It is nice and quiet, and nice and cool this early hour. We spend quite a while exploring what these days are merely ruins; many of the temples were ruined during the Vietnam/American war.
When back in town, we buy the museum visitor pass and visit a couple of museums and temples, and several cafes for drinks and food. We receive mixed service: in the place advertising itself as the best backpacker cafe in town, actually they have two locations, the staff is really reluctant or totally fails to take our orders --- we walk out.
In another hotel restaurant we order a beer and a drink. After a long wait we are told that the drink is not available. We try another one. The same story. Finally they find carrot juice. All this time the beer has been waiting there to be served, so it is far from cold now. We refuse it.
We start our last day with an early morning run. We follow the river bank to South, and through some residential neighborhoods where people are getting ready for the new day. Actually, here people start their day very early, somewhere around 4 or 5am, and take a long siesta through the midday, and then wake up to life again when the sun is down.

Today, we explore Cam Nam island, which is just off the old town Hoi An. There is not much on the island, but a village with a couple of resort hotels and a lot of construction going on. We return to the main land and explore Hoi An some more. We find a few nice restaurants when scouting for a place to buy Vietnamese coffee. We have drinks at Brother's cafe and lunch next door at Viet Lac: five color salad, spring rolls with pork, steamed tuna with pineapple, woodear, and sesame oil, and a couple of bottles of Huda, a beer from Hue, Vietnam. We highly recommend this place, the location by the river is excellent and food yummy.

After the lunch we return to our hotel to pack. We protest the hotel staff's decision to take us to the airport more than two hours prior the flight. Once at the airport we realize the reason for that. The check-in process is the most inefficient and takes forever. Still we have an hour and a half more to wait before the take-off. There is no restaurant in the boarding lobby, just a kiosk that sells Heineken and some local snacks. Acoustically too the lobby is miserable, especially when there are at least three kids crying at the same time.