The hardest part of writing up all of these trips it trying to find photos to go with them. Or I should say, cutting down the hundreds of amazing photos that I would love to put in to a select few, and I think that my trip to Hoi An has proved the hardest so far. It was such a culturally rich, ineffably beautiful part of the country that it could literally have fallen out of someone’s dream.
I had managed to wangle a week down here on my own, and so I decided to spend my first day in Danang driving a rented motorbike up and over the Hai Van Pass, as for me there is no better way to spend a day than in the glorious sunshine exploring a new area on a bike! I read up about it a little bit before I went, and almost everyone said that it should not be done alone: that it was dangerous, and especially for inexperienced drivers was a very stupid idea. However, I’m pretty stubborn and feel like I’m a pretty competent driver, and besides, I wanted to do it. So despite the people at the hotel also telling me not to do it (sorry mam and dad!) I set off up into the clouds that engulfed the mountains stretching along the length of the coastline.
And I’m bloody glad that I did, and would recommend it to anyone who wanted to do a little day trip around that area. The roads were wide and quiet, and wound tightly up to the peak of the mountain, offering fantastic curves for the motorbike and breathtaking views of the flawless white sandy coast which stretched into the distance, the smell of the sea and the cool chill of the mountain air bringing nothing but a grin to my face.
I drove down the other side of the mountain and spent a few hours exploring little villages off of the main road, watching with fascination as the entire mountain behind me got swallowed in a curtain of black thunderclouds, drenching the roads but leaving me always one step ahead in the sunshine. Just by going a little way into the countryside I found some fascinating little villages, if you can even call them that, with small clusters of houses down red sand tracks, alluring small lakes dotted here and there, with tiny schools nothing more than glorified sheds, identifiable by the children shrieking happily as they kicked around stones in the play yard.
When I could resist the call of the sea no longer, I headed back up over the pass, which was now thankfully rain free, and stripped off to my bikini on a patch of glistening white sand, revelling in the fact that I was the only person on the entire beach.
In a very typical move on my behalf, I completely underestimated how strong the sun was and that I had been driving for about 5 hours over mountains in the chill air in nothing but a vest, and so upon stepping into the shower back at the hotel, I was surprised to see that I now resembled a lobster more than a human, making the next few days a comedy of wincing every time I moved. Will I ever learn? I doubt it. Handy hint for you to take away: don’t forget the suncream!
The lovely man I was renting the bike off was more than happy for me to keep it for the rest of the week, with nothing more as a safety for him than the 150,000VND that the bike cost each day (roughly $7 or £4.50), and so with no idea how far away Hoi An actually was from Danang (I like not knowing too much about where I’m going as the journey is often more important than the destination for me) I set off with the beach to my left in search of my next destination. Disappointingly, it was only half an hour down the road, making renting a bike for a week pretty pointless! But it did let me do a bit more exploring around Hoi An, so it wasn’t all for nothing. And at £4.50 a day, who cares really!
The main point of this trip for me was to get to the beach and into the water as soon as possible, so once I’d got my bearings a bit, I headed off in search of a dive school. I didn’t have my PADI license with me to prove that I had my rescue diver qualification, but thankfully they didn’t really care, so I booked myself onto an advanced double dive heading out early the next morning.
There were about ten other people on the boat with me, all of whom were also qualified divers, and I got paired up with a Japanese woman to be my dive buddy. Unfortunately, because of the storm that they had had the day before, the waters had gone from crystal clear with a visibility of about 25 m, to a murky, milky colour, where you could only see something if it was practically in front of your nose. Still, it was great to be back diving after so long, and we ended up seeing some pretty spectacular things. By far the strangest thing I have ever seen underwater was a “field” of bright white half-meter tall sea broccoli, waving gently in the current. It was like something from another planet. Combined with the coral and brightly coloured fish that jetted around us, it made for a very pleasant dive. Until, that is my buddy got distracted by something on a huge rock, forcing me to wait for her. Needless to say, when the visibility is 1-2metres maximum, hanging around while the rest of the group moves on is not a spectacularly clever idea, and so we found ourselves isolated from the group in the middle of the sea. Great. It was quite funny actually floating above her, to see the moment she realized that she was on her own, leaving her panic for a second before sinking down and tapping her on the head, making her jump out of her skin. Serves her right for being such a muppet in the first place. Luckily, the dive leader must have been aware of us disappearing behind him, as they came back to where we were about a minute later.
After one more dive, we headed to our lunch spot – Cham Island – which was, to say the least, the most beautiful tropical island I have ever seen. It looked like something out of a movie, with the haphazardly built wooden jetty, and the hammocks swaying under palm trees. I knew right then that if I could spend the rest of my life on that little island, I most definitely would.
There was a small beach restaurant hidden at the edge of the forest that encroached on the white sand, and food was almost ready as we got there. It was absolutely delicious. Seafood caught fresh each day, vegetables a plenty, and mouth-watering watermelon to finish.
I was the only person staying overnight on the tiny island, so after a few hours of hanging out on the beach, the dive boat finally set sail for Hoi An, leaving me blissfully alone on the beach to soak up the final rays of the sun to my heart’s content.
I got to stay there on my little slice of heaven until the sun had dipped well below the surrounding islands, then I hopped into a tiny boat with a few locals who took me around the coast to where a tiny village was nestled between the sea and the jungle.
I was staying in a small guest house in the middle of the village, and spent the rest of the evening wandering around on my own, watching the children playing in the sea, and monkeys sitting upon roofs quietly munching on fruit.
The following day followed pretty much the same routine – up early, all day on the beach, and then an opportunity which I immediately jumped at to stay on the beach overnight with two guys and a girl from the dive boat who were doing a night dive and were staying in tents that we would put up at the edge of the jungle beneath the trees. While they were diving I sat on the little fishing boat that took them out to a close-by small island, drinking rice wine and beer with the ancient boat driver, and watching the eerie glow of their lamps underwater, coupled with the stunning phenomenon of the phosphorescence lighting up the darkness every time something disturbed it.
Unfortunately that was the last night that I stayed on the island, though I was very very tempted to stay for the remainder of the week. Hoi An won over in the end, as I hadn’t had a chance to look around properly before coming to the island. Looking back though, I wish I’d just stayed there. I’ve since been back to Cham island and tourism has definitely taken over, with plastic jetties, jet-skis and rubble laden beaches ruining the heaven. It made me so sad to see.
Hoi An town however is beautiful, and as it’s a UNESCO world heritage site, it always will be. Set around a river and only a five minute drive to the beach, the buildings are either a dark rich wood, festooned with hanging boxes stuffed to the brim with flowers, or a beautiful yellow that reflects in the glassy waters and shimmers warmly at night, expertly lit by hanging lanterns and candles.
While I was there I was lucky enough to catch the Hoi An lantern festival, and the streets were swimming with tourists, mainly Vietnamese, jostling and bustling around the tiny streets, pouring out of the alleys and crowding over the bridges, while street vendors were selling lotus shaped paper ‘boats’ and candles which people then lowered into the water and set floating out into the darkness of the river.
By the end of the evening, the entire town was aglow with hundreds upon hundreds of these candles lining the river and canal banks, which was a pretty spectacular sight, and would have been much better received by me if I hadn’t been in such a bad mood about having my phone swiped from by pockets whilst walking over the bridge. But c’est la vie. It’s the first and only time so far that I have had something like that happen to me in Vietnam, and I guess I should have been more aware of such a thing happening in such a crowded place, rife with opportunities for the less well off. It was a brand new phone too, so I hope they got some good money from selling it! Still, at least now I’m a bit more aware while I’m travelling, and it hasn’t spoiled my view of this absolutely stunning holiday spot.