After Halong our onward journey took us back to Hanoi to pick up an overnight train south to Da Nang, about halfway down the country on the east coast, the South China Sea.
We definitely think the Vietnamese trains are the best way to travel through the country. Cheap and comfortable, you get a real insight to Vietnam country life when you travel by train, passing by rice paddies and through small towns. We booked our four man sleeper cabin on line, showed our e-ticket and on we went. It was at this point, with the slightly dubious hygiene of the train issued blankets, that our sleeping bag liners came in handy!
After a night on the train we arrived in Da Nang the next day. It was time for us to spend a bit of time in one place, catch up on some school work and check out some of Vietnam’s most famous beaches.
Once one of French Indochina’s biggest five cities and also the city in which American troops first landed during the Vietnam conflict, Da Nang is the biggest city in central Vietnam. It is currently being transformed from a sleepy provincial city to a city on the move and we could see the change taking place before our eyes with all the construction being carried out along the shoreline…
We booked a week at Anisha Homestay (which we highly recommend) to the north of the main hotel strip – a little bit away from the central tourist hustle and bustle and more in the ‘local’ area. Still we had over 20 miles of white sandy beaches and clear waters just a five minute walk away.
The homestay was superb. Giang, the owner, and all of her family were so kind and friendly, the place was really clean and spacious with a really nice, homely feel. Throughout the week Giang introduced us to a range of Vietnamese food and as a result, we probably tried far more variety than we would have been brave enough to try if we had been left to our own devices! We also loved to walk out to the little street restaurant, that did meat and salad with Vietnamese pancake wraps, and then there was the bakery and its ‘Bahn Mi Op La’ that became a staple stop for us for lunch, the doughnuts, cakes and biscuits were pretty good too…oops!
It was also our first introduction to real Vietnamese beds – they were seriously hard, in true Vietnamese tradition! Having said that, we slept really well on them with no backaches or pains in the morning, so maybe there’s something in it…
The first afternoon on the beach we watched the fishermen with awe as they cast out their fishing nets from the traditional Vietnamese basket boats. An hour or so later we were (willingly) roped in to helping pull the nets back in again. Then a crowd of locals started to gather round and the fishermen swiftly sorted the catch, got their scales out and started selling the fish directly from the beach.
The only down side to the beach in Da Nang is that we got to see the world’s plastic pollution problem first hand. Each day we went to the beach we collected some of the plastic waste that was washing up on the shore. We even started collecting bits of plastic that floated by us in the sea too. It also saddened us, and it felt morally wrong, that the beaches in front of the big hotel resorts were groomed and preened, the plastic waste removed so that nobody in those places had to face up to the reality of what we humans are doing to our oceans, whilst the beaches used by local fisherman for their livelihood and used by the locals for their enjoyment were not given the same priority, and therefore plastic pollution here was more than just evident.
One of our favourite spots for the week was a café in the back streets that did excellent iced Vietnamese coffee. It became our daily post school, pre beach stop off and was also where we watched locals playing a card game that necessitated slapping the cards down on the table as hard as possible, that we still have no idea how you play!
The other highlight in Da Nang is the Dragon Bridge – a 666m Dragon shaped bridge that at 9pm on the weekends spits fire and water! Everyone comes out to watch, locals and tourists alike – the bridge is definitely a feature not to miss.
Da Nang is a world away from the tourist centres of other Vietnamese cities. You definitely feel you are in ‘real’ Vietnam if you stay here and we would recommend anyone heading to Hoi An not to bypass Da Nang, but maybe stay here for a few days too for a completely different Vietnam experience.
Hoi An is only 29km and yet truly a world away from the modern city of Da Nang. Hoi An is the Yang to Da Nang’s Yin! Another UNESCO heritage site in Vietnam, it is a beautifully preserved ancient town, from where the Cham people controlled the spice trade between the 7th and 10th Centuries. It went on to be an important trading port on the Silk route from the 16th Century to the end of the 18th Century, during which it was settled by various nationalities including the Japanese, Dutch, Chinese and Indians. This melting pot of cultural influences helped develop its unique architecture.
We stayed a short walk from Hoi An’s historic old town in a lovely little homestay with a stunning little pool to cool off in. The area around Hoi An is super flat and the hotel provided bikes free of charge, as with most Hoi An hotels. It was the perfect way to get around and see the area as well as the town.
The Old Town is predominantly pedestrianised, meaning wandering round on foot or by bike is both safe and easy. We took our trusty bikes one day, paid for a tourist ticket that gave us entry into a number of the town’s heritage buildings, museums and a traditional theatre performance, and off we went cycling round to all the major visitor attractions on the list. We managed to cover the Japanese Bridge, the museum of History and Folklore, the museum of Ceramics, the Cantonese Assembly Hall and Gardens, the Old House of Duc An and we squeezed in a traditional dance and music performance at the end. It was the perfect way to to visit and I think we did pretty well!
We also spent our time wandering the streets of the old town, the tailor’s market (which was bitter-sweet given that with four brimming rucksacks and another 10 months to travel we couldn’t fit any of the magnificent made-to-measure clothes in!), the food market where we first tried Hoi An’s famous Cao Lau – the first of many consumed while we were there. And then there was the night market every day from 5.00p.m., across the river bridge on the island. It offers all kinds of treats and delicacies and a particular favourite of ours was the rolled ice-cream. It was just as entertaining to watch it being made as it was to eat it. And of course there was an abundance of silk lanterns and other goods on offer too.
Our stay in Hoi An also coincided with the full moon lantern festival (yes, very proud of myself for having planned that one in!) As we headed down to the riverside after dark, there were people everywhere selling paper lanterns to be lit and floated down the river. Vietnamese tradition sees this as an offering of remembrance and respect for ancestors. Although it did feel a little touristy, and as though the real tradition behind the festival had been replaced with a sense of commercial gain, it was still a very special sight to behold.
Possibly one of our favourite days, however, took us out of Hoi An’s centre. Before coming to Vietnam, I had romantic visions of peacefully cycling through paddy fields, it seemed to me to be the quintessential Vietnamese experience. The area surrounding Hoi An is flat and full of paddy fields intertwined with waterways heading out to sea. So, we took the bikes out from the hotel again, but this time we headed out to the coast. We weaved our way through the rice paddies and along the road to An Bang beach. This very chilled out place was friendly and welcoming. The waves were quite big, but not too dangerous, so we all had good fun in the water. The beach side bars and restaurants were really reasonably priced and the sun loungers and umbrellas free if you had a drink – it would have been rude not to, right?
So, if you’re heading to Hoi An, don’t bypass Da Nang on your way. Think about spending a couple of days and seeing two very diverse sides of this beautiful country.