Thursday, December 29, 2011

Day 72 - 73: Easy Riders tour to Central Highlands

We set off at about 8:30am, with our luggage strapped to the back of a couple of bigger bikes, which were also more comfortable to ride on. Just as well, since I was using muscles I forgot I had since my karate days and they were none too happy about being asked to work again yesterday, particularly Mr. Hip Flexor. We were ready to go!

Our first stop was Truc Lam Temple which contained some lovely sculptures, topiary, flower gardens and water features. This was one part of the "exercise" portion of the morning, and we walked around it for a good 20 minutes before rejoining Bin and Ky.

Soon after, we arrived at the Chicken Village, so called because of the huge chicken statue in the centre. We have no idea why. This was followed by a mushroom farm where we saw a packed greenhouse full of mushrooms. When I say full, I mean there really wasn't "mush room" in there. Ahem.

On the next stop, Bin found some "lipstick trees" which he cracked open a few fruits from, and proceeded to use the crushed seeds (which act as a natural colourant and flavour for curries, and also as a dye - hence the informal name of the tree) to draw a Vietnamese star on my forehead.

We stopped for lunch at a cafe with magnificent food (a literal feast - there must have been 9 different dishes) and even better views of the vista. More exercise followed, as we were made to climb a huge flight of steps on a hill, which must have been some sort of abandoned water system, and which offered magnificent views of the rural countryside. Bin and Ky pointed out some shrubs (Mimosa) which closed their leaves when touched. I felt like a kid again, discovering new and wonderful things that are, at their core, simple and all around us. It made me realise how much we simply ignore our surroundings back home, barely appreciating nature as we take it in.

We passed over a bridge under which a floating village rested in the waters, and before long we were at our final destination of the day - Lak Lake.  This is a Mnong village, with its own language separate to Vietnamese, where the villagers live in longhouses. We had the opportunity to either stay in an authentic longhouse for the "real Vietnam" experience, or take the easier option and stay in a guesthouse. After a day on the road, we'd opted for the latter and were happy that we did; Bin informed us that the villagers usually wake up at around 4am to kickstart the generators and get the vehicles moving for the day ahead. This, whilst undoubtedly a "real" taste, would have probably wiped us out for the following day. The evening meal at the restaurant down the road was equally excellent, and we shared a couple of small bottles of rice liquor, whilst Bin and another Easy Rider showed us some classic pub tricks (removing a bank note from between bottles, etc) and in return I showed them some card tricks.

We then thought it would be a good idea to track down a karaoke bar. Bin was enthusiastic, Ky less so. I will hastily brush over the fact that we decided to get on the back of bikes with people who had been drinking (without wearing helmets, no less) and skip to the part where we spent 15 minutes trying to find a place. Vietnamese people love karaoke; it's incredibly popular all over the country. And when I say popular, I mean that at 8:30pm on a Thursday, we had to try three different karaoke bars before we could find one that had a free booth. After avoiding police traps thanks to locals warning us that they were performing spot checks on people wearing helmets (drink-driving is apparently fine), we got ourselves a room and proceeded to belt out some tunes. Well, the three of us did - Ky wasn't particularly up for it. I think he was knackered, bless him. Bin certainly gave it both barrels, and we found out he's a not-so-secret Lionel Richie fan.

The next morning, feeling absolutely fine, we had a rather meagre breakfast of fruit and bread and set off back to Lak Lake to watch the elephants being brought in to the village and fed. Banana plants were very popular, with one elephant dragging an entire tree branch down the road with it after he was prompted to finish his meal and move on. I can understand: you never know when you may get hungry later. Bin treated us to some excellent guitar playing (Metallica, The Eagles, more Lionel Richie) over some Vietnamese tea, and I attempted to play "Nothing Else Matters" and failed miserably, so we got back on the bikes again.

Next stop was a rice field where a few local ladies were busy toiling in the sun and cutting the crop. After being invited to have a go ourselves we made a bit of a hash of it with the sickle, much to the amusement of the locals. Fortunately, no limbs were severed. The wind had been blowing strong all morning, and at this point it decided to really hammer both us and the bikes. It blew over the bike I had been on, rolling over my luggage in the process, and blew Gilly off completely as she attempted to get back on. She was fine though, apart from a bruised ego.

We drove on - slowly - over a bridge that had been bombed during the war, and then on to another area beyond it which had a burned out church sat in the middle of a field. Bin and Ky stopped for more tea whilst we wandered down to the church shell, and when we came back they showed us some of the ordnance that had been left behind by the war, including a 20kg bomb shell.

This was followed by a stop at a local animal lady's house. She kept scorpions and boa constrictors. One of the snakes was a hefty 35kg, and must have been a good 10 feet long at least. After holding a smaller one, Gilly then had the monster wrapped around her:

I helped put it around her, and I couldn't believe how heavy it was. I'd held boas before but nothing this big; not ideal pets, but pretty harmless to humans and fairly cute in their own scaly way.

Not far away was a series of peppercorn trees. We tried a few freshly picked peppercorns which blew our heads off. Not spicy, just really...peppery. Odd, that. I picked a few for us to mix in with our lunch which we had soon after in Buon Ma Thuot - the capital city of the Central Highlands. Compared to the other food we'd eaten on our tour, this was fairly bland (even with the peppercorns) and also cost more than the other meals. Maybe we'd been spoiled early on.

The highlight of the day was visiting the national park outside the city after lunch, and going to the waterfall inside. We also had plenty of time to swim. The water was warm in places as the sun was baking down, and we managed to get a few good snaps of the surroundings:

And with that, it was time to head back to Buon Ma Thuot again to get some food ahead of another sleeper bus which would drop us off in Ho Chi Minh on Christmas Eve morning. We said a sad farewell to Bin and Ky who had been magnificent during the entire tour:

In the evening I found out that when the bike had gone over with my luggage in, the weight of it had crushed the bag, my Kindle case, and the Kindle itself. The Kindle was completely unresponsive; it accepted power, but the screen was crushed. We'd been told that Easy Riders had insurance, so I rang Bin only to find out that the insurance covered people and not belongings. Who knows what would have happened if any of our stuff had been stolen from the bikes en route... Regardless, I rang my own insurer who told me that it was probably covered, but they couldn't guarantee it. Typical insurance company, then. I would have to submit a claim on my return (if not earlier) and they would assess it. I was obviously more than a little peeved to learn that Easy Riders hadn't clarified the insurance situation at their end, but Bin must also have been worried as he asked a colleague in the area on a tour to come into the bus station office where we were waiting and have a chat. He said that whilst it was a freak accident that had never happened before, the name and reputation of the Easy Riders was important, and if I wanted, Bin would find the money to replace the Kindle. This put me in a bit of an awkward situation; obviously the company should have explained the insurance side of things beforehand and I could have made provision to move valuables to my smaller bag which would have been more protected, but on the other hand I couldn't really ask Bin to fork out $230. Easy Riders, it turns out, isn't a company but a club. They pay tax to the government, are registered, but arrange everything themselves - including tours. It seems that each member keeps the fee they agree with tourists, and they are effectively individuals working under a group name. Therefore there isn't a company account; anything Bin paid out would have to come from his own pocket. Troubled by this, I decided to see what other options were available when we got to Ho Chi Minh City the following morning. R.I.P. Kindle.

In spite of this - our first major loss on the trip - we thoroughly enjoyed our time with Easy Riders, and would highly recommend taking a tour with them to see more of Vietnam than the well-trodden tourist traps in the popular towns and cities.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Day 70 - 72: Dalat - Arrival and countryside tour

We left for Dalat at 8:30am, and stopped for breakfast less than an hour later where I ordered a Tiger beer for no other reason than I could.  I didn't even want it really, but  this is a voyage of discovery, and I have now discovered that a beer isn't really the best thing to drink first thing in the morning, especially with a 4 hour journey ahead of you. I guess hair of the dog only works if you’d had enough hair the night before to justify it, which I hadn't.

Gilly was in charge of finding us accommodation after our original hotel plans fell through due to being booked out and not replying to emails asking if they were full. We landed at the Peace Hotel in a spacious, if not particularly warm room.  After grabbing a cheap, tasty meal in the attached café, we decided to explore Dalat.

Home of the famous Dalat milk, I’m almost ashamed to say I didn’t drink any whilst I was there. I guess my milk craving had been sated back in Nha Trang, and now that milk was everywhere, the excitement of finding it just wasn’t there.  Dalat is a city which I was quite looking forward to seeing, but ended up feeling a bit disappointed to. Maybe it had been hyped a little too much by some of the people we’d met, but it was no Chiang Mai, and no Luang Prabang. It wasn’t even Hanoi. As cities go, it was small in comparison, but there was a decent sized lake in the centre which had swan-shaped pedaloes.  We decided to give them a go, and jumping into the hastily named “Cedric” (Gilly’s choice) we pumped our legs for the best part of an hour in order to get a river view of the surroundings. It turns out that an hour of pedaling against a stubborn current is bloody hard.  It got to the point where we almost beached ourselves against the bank, much to the bemusement of a local fisherman whose waters we disturbed.

Back on dry land, we strolled through the hilly streets, taking in the usual assortment of rstaurants and art galleries. One gallery in particular had some spectacular palette knife paintings at crazy cheap prices – well, compared to what you’d pay back in Blighty, anyway. I vowed that if (when) our lottery numbers come in, I will be on the phone to Mr. Phuong immediately and getting some paintings shipped over to decorate my new castle-mansion.

It’s fair to say we use TripAdvisor a lot. Some may argue that part of travel is in exploring the unknown, seeking out new life and new civilization, and boldly going into the culinary world where few westerners have gone before. I agree, to a point. That point being: if a boatload of people recommend a western restaurant and I’m in the mood for western food, then I’m damn well going to eat there if I can. Sometimes though, TripAdvisor gets it wrong. The “Wisdom of Crowds” doesn’t necessarily hold if people a) are being paid to write good reviews of a place, b) have lower standards of what merits “good” or c) are idiots. Such was our experience of V Café, which promised a wonderful mix of excellent food and live jazz music. On our arrival, the latter didn’t transpire as the musician had buggered off for the day elsewhere. The former was a disappointment. Quesadillas and green curry aren’t particularly time-consuming dishes to make, or even get wrong. When they finally arrived 45 minutes later, we were expecting the culinary equivalent of Mozart but ended up with a Hans Zimmer rehash.  Only the homemade chocolate pie - ordered on a whim since I was still hungry - managed to get everything right with delicious shortcrust pastry and a divine chocolate mousse topping. It was the saving grace of the restaurant. On our way back, we stopped at the Les Sapins hotel next door to ours to ask about rooms. It was a spotlessly clean place, double-glazed, and almost certainly new – there was plastic still covering the wall sockets.  The bed was firm but after some discussion with the very odd girl running the place, she agreed to match the price of next door’s room.

The next morning we moved our stuff over, and walked to the outskirts of the city centre to check out a couple of Dalat’s sparse sights. We contemplated getting either bicycles or a motorbike, but decided against it after seeing some of the insanity on the roads. If there’s one impression present-day Vietnam will leave me with, it’s the chaos you have to deal with when crossing a street. You need to be 18 to have a licence for a lot of bikes, but for scooters and mopeds under 100cc, a licence isn’t required.  People of all ages take to the roads, texting whilst riding, calling whilst riding, loading their bikes up with planks of wood, sacks of rice, live animals, sometimes 4 people to a bike. Apparently, Ho Chi Minh city (our next destination) makes Hanoi look like a fairly quiet town and Dalat an abandoned wasteland – 10 million people, 6 million bikes.  Can’t wait.

We decided not to get ourselves killed, and walked to Ga Da Lat – the city’s old train station; it only runs one service to Nha Trang and back from what we could gather. Gilly’s dad loves trains so we thought we’d take a few photos of what looks to be a steam engine which is no longer in use, both for his enjoyment and also so he can tell me that it isn’t a steam engine. These are for you, Steve:

After grabbing a decent-sized lunch at a nearby café whilst having the “pleasure” of listening to Michael Bublé murder a dozen Christmas classics on his cynical new cash-in album,  we moved on to the excellent Lam Dong museum.  The main building housed the usual collection of pots and other excavated gubbins, but also a bizarre gallery of taxidermy and some interesting musical instruments. In the surrounding grounds there were a couple of traditional tribe “longhouses” which gave us an idea of how the various tribes lived, a house dedicated to the former king and queen of Vietnam and a huge gong placed next to the longhouses for reasons unknown.

Food that night came courtesy of Tu Anh’s, the proprietor of the same name being what can only be described as “a bit nuts”. Lovely woman, talks incessantly at a machine gun rate, takes care of her customers, a real dining experience. The food, mostly western, wasn’t bad either.

The next day we decided to take a tour with Dalat Easy Riders Club. This was essentially a day trip around some of Dalat’s sights outside of the city, riding pillion on a motorbike being driven by one of the 26 club members who make up Easy Riders. They must be doing something right, as we had seen dozens of copycat tours during our travels through Vietnam; the bikers do anything from day trips to month-long bike treks up and down the country.

We were introduced to our riders, Mr. Bin and Mr. Ky. The former had been in the club for about 4 years, the latter only a couple of months. Whilst Bin spoke fantastic English,  Ky had barely half a dozen words, which he made up for by a number of energetic and often hilarious mime actions. The day tour was jam-packed, and we crammed in a whole host of visits including:
  •           A huge Dragon Pagoda with a massive dragon statue which snaked around the courtyard

  •           A silk workshop where we were fascinated by the way the workers took silkworm pupae and stripped them of their threads via some huge machinery, before using cardboard templates (not dissimilar to those of a pianola) to weave them automatically into rugs, sheets and rolls of silk fabric

  •           A coffee farm where we saw farmers harvesting millions of coffee beans from the acres of trees in the countryside (Vietnam is the second-biggest coffee exporter in the world)
  •           Thac Voi waterfall, which left us drenched and happy

  •           Chua Linh An pagoda, which hosted a very happy (and large) Buddha statue

  •          A rice wine farm, where we got to see how the locals brewed fermented rice liquor and tried some 60% ABV wine / turps.
  •           A flower farm where we saw thousands of roses, lilacs, gerbera, tulips and more all growing under tarpaulin greenhouses. Dalat is known as the Flower City for good reason – they are everywhere, beautiful and cheap. Farmers drive 10 hours to Saigon to sell them in the city, such is their popularity.

We ended the tour in the afternoon with a trip to the Crazy House. Built by the daughter of a former Vietnamese president, it lives up to its name, looking like the lovechild of Tim Burton and M.C. Escher. It feels completely organic, with paths and corridors intertwining and going off in a hundred different directions, and a variety of themed rooms such as the Kangaroo room (complete with kangaroo statue with glowing red eyes), the Bear room, the Tiger room, and so on. It was a fascinating place to explore, like a Disney house would look if Uncle Walt had taken a rather nasty LSD trip. A 20-year labour of love, the architect Dang Viet Nga had to overcome a lot of opposition to the house, mainly from the local community who considered it an eyesore. Happily, the reaction by most visitors appears to be positive. It’s certainly unlike any place I’d visited before, and was probably the highlight of the day and a great way to end the tour.

Once back at the Easy Riders office (handily located next door to our hotel), we talked to Bin about doing a 2-day tour and exploring the “real Vietnam”, as he put it. We wanted to be in Ho Chi Minh for Christmas Eve, so he arranged a tour that left on the 22nd December, finished on the evening on 23rd December, and would have us on a sleeper bus which arrived at about 7am on the 24th. We thought it was an opportunity too good to miss, so decided to go for it. The tour would take us up to the central highlands, and en route we would see a plethora of authentic Vietnamese sights which aren’t generally covered in the guidebooks.

We ate at Tu Anh’s again that evening and, excited for the tour ahead, got an early night ahead of an 8:30am start.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Christmas!

Ho! Ho! Ho!

This is going to be the most bizarre Christmas we've had. Away from much-loved and much-missed family and friends, we wanted to let you all know that whilst we're having a great time, we can't wait to catch up with you all again next year.

In traditional Vietnamese fashion, we're going to celebrate Christmas by going to a water park. Don't let the turkey burn!

Hope your Christmas is amazing, and 2012 is a year to remember for all the right reasons!

love Rob and Gilly xxxx

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Day 68 - 69: Nha Trang

If anything, I slept worse on the sleeper bus to Nha Trang than on the one from Hanoi to Hue. After trekking for about 30 minutes to find "Hotel Alley", we checked in at An Hoa and I got a couple of hours kip. We headed out for lunch on the recommendation of the hotel staff to Mecca and had some great seafood (swordfish for me, fish in a clay pot for Gilly).

Feeling a little more with it, we wandered along the beach. The weather was warm but overcast and it drizzled periodically, but it was a refreshing walk. There isn't actually that much to do in Nha Trang; it's a fairly small beach town with a couple of historic sites and a huge stretch of beach, and is inexplicably popular with Russians - so much so, that many of the menus have Vietnamese, English and Russian translations.

We decided to take it easy on the first day, and treat ourselves to a pizza at Olivia - the second best pizza we've had since Vientiane.

On the second day we walked up toward the Long Son Pagoda, whose claim to fame is a huge white Buddha on a hill behind the pagoda itself. It's adorned with memorials to a number of monks who killed themselves through self-immolation, including Thich Quang Duc, mentioned a few posts back. There is a large cathedral in Nha Trang and we saw significantly more Catholic artwork and trinkets in the town than anywhere else in Asia until now.

We got a motorbike taxi to the other main historical site - Po Nagar Cham Towers, which was a fairly interesting diversion, but nothing particularly spectacular. A motorbike taxi back to town brought us to our lunch destination: Lanterns. To be honest, we couldn't see what all the hype was about on Trip Advisor, as the food was distinctly average and we much preferred yesterday's meal at Mecca. On the upside, Lanterns hands out free meals each Monday to the locals and also does a lot of charity work in the area, so there are definitely worse places to spend your money.

In Nha Trang, I also found some fresh milk for the first time in 2.5 months. Needless to say, I was pretty excited:

Nha Trang has the world's longest over-sea cable car, but the weather just wasn't worth us taking it - the visibility would have been appalling. On the upside, we did see some spectacular waves on the beach.

We ended our last day with some excellent seafood at Cafe Des Amis, followed by a quick drink at Why Not? bar.

We have booked an early morning bus to Dalat tomorrow (7:30am) which should take 4 hours - not too bad. We also need to try and book accommodation for New Year, as we are hoping to be in Sihanoukville in Cambodia, and it looks like hotels are selling out all over...

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Day 62 - 67: Hoi An (Suits You, Sir!)

Hoi An has a reputation for being the place in Vietnam (and indeed, SE Asia) to go for tailor-made clothes. There are literally hundreds of tailor shops packed into a radius of about 2 square kilometres. With so much choice, it's pretty difficult to know which are good and which are awful. A mere glance at one of the items outside a shop will cause one of the staff to come rushing out to accost you and to try and drag you into their store. The majority of stores are actually just fronts for a factory service; you pick the item and the fabric/colour you want; they measure you up; they send the measurements and the fabric to the factory; it comes back and you try it on; you ask for any adjustments; it goes back to the factory; it comes back and you try it on; you're hopefully happy with it.

I already knew I was going to get a suit or two from Yaly. They had a reputation for being the best tailor in town, and we'd also had recommendations from other people who'd been there. It also turns out that this is where the Top Gear guys came on the motorbike tour to Vietnam. Think I missed that episode.

After being dropped off by the bus outside An Phu hotel who was offering $10 rooms in 3-star accommodation (result!), we were fortunate enough to find that Yaly was on the same road. The place is massive. They do all of their tailoring on-site, and the range of materials on offer is mind-blowing. They can do anything: you have a favourite dress/shirt/pair of shoes? They can replicate it, and probably with better quality material and stitching. You see something you like in a catalogue or online? They will make it for you. When our lottery numbers come in, I'm going to come here for a month and get an entire wardrobe or two made up. The materials are all clearly marked with prices so there's no need for haggling as you'll get in many, many other stores. You can spend anything from $78 to $500 on a suit, and from $17 to $150 on a shirt - with everything in between. We arrived and were greeted by a lovely, smiling girl named Genia. She took us around the shop, pointing out the fabrics for shirts and suits, and then left me to make a decision.

I own two suits. One is an off-the-rack ill-fitting thing that I got from Burton around 12 years ago and have used for everything since: interviews, funerals, weddings, you name it. The other is a dinner suit with a 28" waist that I can just about squeeze into. I thought it prudent to buy two suits here - one for work stuff, and one for more casual events and whatnot.

I picked out a grey material for the work suit, and opted for a $200 blend of cashmere and wool. For a black suit, I went for a wool, cotton and polyester mix for $100. I also thought it worth getting some shirts - three Italian cotton shirts for $34 a piece seemed reasonable: one navy for evening wear, one white for all-purpose events, and one white with blue/pink stripes to go with the grey suit. Genia measured me up, and told me to come back for the first fitting the following day. They work fast in these places.

With that out of the way, it was over to Gilly to try and find something she liked. Genia freely admitted that women's clothes would be cheaper elsewhere, and probably of a similar quality. Unfortunately, the amount of clothing on offer around Hoi An short-circuited the shopping lobe in Gilly's brain, and she wandered around the town drooling. By the next day she would have adapted to the situation, but the first day was a write-off.

For dinner we went to the fantastic Miss Ly restaurant to try some of the specialty Hoi An dishes. The main treats are Cao Lau (noodles mixed with pork, pork crackling and lettuce in a sauce), White Rose (steamed dumplings containing a mix of prawn, chilli and lime, with crispy onions on top), and fried wontons with some sort of salsa with hot prawns on top. We ordered all three, and they were superb. In fact, we didn't manage to find a place that did all three dishes as well in the entire time we were in Hoi An.


White Rose:

Afterwards, with room to spare, we decided to take Julie and Lev's advice and head to Cargo. They had been talking up the desserts here, as had Tom and Holly, so we thought it would be rude not to. We weren't disappointed:

Mango pavlova:

Chocolate brownie cheesecake:

The next day we had lunch at the interestingly named "Lame Cafe" (fantastic rice pancakes, and a glass of draught beer is 3000 dong....or about 11p) and then wandered about town. Hoi An is a lovely little place, with lots of French influence apparent in all of the buildings, and a nice view over the river. It's like the word "quaint" was invented for this place.

I went for my first suit fitting, and was pretty impressed with their first attempt. The jacket for the grey suit was perfect, but the trousers were a little loose. With the black suit, the jacket was a little tight but the trousers were great. Genia got on the microphone and summoned up a tailor, who then went around me marking places on the clothes in chalk, before disappearing downstairs again. And with that, the first fitting was complete. This outfit of tailors is very professional.

Gilly plucked up the courage as we traversed the narrow streets to have a look at some dresses. She found a lovely purple dress in one tailor for $25 and got measured up; then she found a place that did both a great evening dress and a work suit for a total of $40. Find me a place in the UK that does tailor-made clothing at this price, and I will be a happy man.

Fittings over, we met up with Scott and Hannah for dinner at Faifoo and had a lovely meal in the evening. Of course, we had room for more Cargo desserts:

Chocolate mousse cake:

Chocolate Truffle cake:

On our third day we decided to explore the town a bit. Hoi An has a ticket scheme where you buy a ticket which gets you into 5 different places out of a possible 18 around the town, over the course of three days. On our first day we went to Tan Ky House (one of the oldest houses in Hoi An), the Handicraft Workshop (which hosted a traditional music and dance performance) and the Museum of History (a fairly limited selection of exhibits with some bad translations). Hoi An, we learned, used to be a prosperous port town, but the advent of other towns and cities along the coast doing better business coupled with a tendency for the river to flood each year meant that pretty much all major trade ceased to the town. The height of the floodwater was staggering - Tan Ky house had measurements of the water levels over the years:

The chalk mark just above Gilly's head was from a month ago(!) whilst the very top yellow label is the height reached in 1964. Unsurprisingly, when the floods are expected everyone moves all of their belongings to the top floors....

After a morning of sites, we went to Bale Well for lunch. They gave us a mountain of food: pork satay, rolled pork with rice paper, rice pancakes filled with shrimp, and spring rolls. All with an amazing sauce and about 3kg of salad to go with it. It was a tremendous meal, and we were thoroughly stuffed.

The afternoon saw us back in Yaly to check the adjustments on the suits. Everything fitted superbly. I felt a bit like James Bond. Getting back into my backpacker clothes (t-shirt and convertible trousers) was a little depressing. Still, we were cheered up by the news that a couple of our Canadian friends - Cayleigh and Patrick, whom we met over all-you-can-eat ice cream in Hanoi - were in town, so we arranged to meet up for dinner along with Scott and Hannah.

We crossed over the Japanese Covered Bridge and went gift shopping. Hoi An has a massive array of shops all selling a huge variety of presents. Chopsticks, lacquerware, fans, linens, coasters...pretty much anything you'd like to send home. The constant pleading of the owners (pretty much all female) to get you to go into their store can wear after a while, but you soon learn to zone it out. "You buy something!" and "Looking!" and "Come in here you!" seem to be the stock phrases most employ, as if the town was some sort of cartel who agreed to restrict formalities to three greetings with which they can entice the punters. Woe betide the maverick who branches out to learn a politer introduction.

Gilly picked up her dresses, and everything looked tip-top for both of us:

We headed to White Sail for dinner; I fancied something a little more Thai so opted for chicken with chilli and garlic, whilst everyone else tried the Hoi An dishes. None of us came away disappointed. Cayleigh and Patrick recommended a great bar to head to afterwards: the Sunshine Cafe, run by a lady who embodied the name of the establishment. She advised us that every hour was happy hour, so we got a few 12p beers before moving on to mojitos. We may have been the largest group of people to visit her little cafe for some time, bless her. After a few rounds of Uno, time had slipped by unnoticed and before we knew it the clock was hitting 11pm. The walk home was wet, but deathly quiet. The entire town shuts down at 11, and it was refreshing not to get offered a bicycle or some food as we trudged back to the hotel.

The following day we packed up all our gifts and new clothes along with some odds and ends we had picked up in our first two and a half months on the road, and went to the post office to ship them home. An hour later, and they were packaged in a box that was taped within an inch of its life and ready to head back to Blighty. My wonderful sister will be taking good care of the goodies until next October.

We had a couple of visits left on our tickets, so we went to a couple of Assembly Halls. Essentially, these are courtyards mixed with temples which are used for special events and are decorated in the style of the country who owned the hall. For instance, the Cantonese Assembly Hall had dragons and Chinese script all over.

We went back to Lame for lunch. We weren't as impressed with their wontons; I think we'd been spoiled by the quality elsewhere. After a few beers, we wandered around some of the galleries in town as well as the Museum of Folk which, like the other museum we'd been in, didn't really have much to offer. We fancied a change from Vietnamese food so went to Ganesh in the evening. It had the exact same menu as  Omar's in Hue, and we later found out that the company who runs them have a Ganesh or Omar's in pretty much every town in Vietnam. The food appears to be consistent though: it was as good, if not better than our meal in Hue. After a few games of cards in Cargo over dessert with Scott and Hannah, we walked back to the hotel in a downpour, the like of which I'd not seen since Bangkok. Luckily, the hotel supplied us with an umbrella in our room - a nice touch, which Gilly had sensibly thought to grab on the way out.


On our final day we met up with Patrick and Cayleigh in the morning and said goodbye, as they are heading over to Thailand for Christmas. They've kindly offered to host us when we hit Toronto though, so it wasn't a sad farewell.

We decided to go to Miss Ly and end on a positive note for lunch with the best Hoi An food in the town. A trip over the bridge to Cham Island was uneventful and there was none of the charm, ambience or indeed activity of the old town, so we headed back half an hour later. A final dessert in Cargo rounded off the afternoon, and we opted to share the awesome Gourmet Chocolate Plate:

A sleeper bus to Nha Trang awaited us at 6pm, for another 12 hour journey. Nha Trang is a beach town. The weather in Hoi An ranged from cloudy to bucketing down, possibly due to a tropical storm which may be sweeping the area, so we have no idea what the sky is going to look like when we stagger off the bus in the morning.