Vietnam is a big country. Well, a long country I suppose I should say.
To make our way from Ben Tre to Hoi An, we needed to bus, plane, and cab to get there.
Hoi An was going to be special: we were to spend New Year’s Eve & my birthday here, it was our last stop as a foursome, and it’s the home of the famous basket boats!
Now, I will go ahead and tell you that I almost didn’t want to participate in the basket boats despite being the one who insisted that we find them. I had read a lot online – travel blogs mostly – about how much fun they were with great pictures of a single basket boat surrounded by lush coconut trees. I had this picture in my mind of an authentic Vietnam boating experience.
That ain’t what it is, ya’ll.
It’s a damn tourist trap.
Should have known better when we got out of the cab in Cam Thanh village (where the boats are) and we were instantly bombarded and steered to the “best basket boats in town”. We ended up here…
I had two thoughts walking up.
1) This reminds me of the water ride “Rip Roaring Rapids” at our hometown theme park, Carowinds.
2) I am NOT getting in a damn basket boat with a pink life vest.
Needless to say, I was thoroughly disappointed by what I was seeing. To top it off, there was top 40 pop blasting and they wanted 400,000 dong per person (~$17 USD). My authentic Vietnam boating experience was crumbling.
But, we were already here so Shane and Terry start negotiating. After convincing the guy to let us go for 100,000 dong per person and then convincing me that it was going to be fun – “just think of it like the gondolas in Venice” – we were on our way (sans pink lifevest).
At least the ride came with a hat, right?
You know what else the ride came with? Dancing.
Do you see that party happening behind Sis? They had 2 workers stationed there with speakers, blasting more top 40 hits, and (if you wanted to) you could swing by for a dance party. We stopped long enough to watch – these people were having a grand time, good for them! – but opted out of the dance party ourselves.
Your ride experience also greatly varied depending on your boat driver. Boat paddler, I suppose is a better term? Whatever you want to call it, it was hard work to paddle those round boats in a particular direction, and it was windy that day too! Shane and I ended up with an older guy who was a more subdued ride-giver.
Sis and Terry had a little different experience…
Their boat driver thought it was HILARIOUS to make them paddle, and paddle they did – in the rain – for probably 20 min of the 40 min trip.
They also spun you around in the boat, this happened to Sis and terry a lot, and made you fun rings out of banana leaves so all in all it ended up being a win. If you’re interested in the basket boats, I’d say do it. Just go into it with an open mind…
Basket boats aside, Hoi An was a great town. With only 150,000 residents as opposed to Ho Chi Minh City’s 8.5 million, it was a nice change of pace. The city was large enough to have plenty to do over our 3-day stay, yet small enough that we could ditch the maps and navigate ourselves.
It’s also famous for two things: hand-made clothes and lanterns.
I’ll start with the clothes. We heard from the interwebs and a few others who had traveled to Hoi An that tailor-made clothing was A THING here. That it was good quality and that it was inexpensive. We both thought – Ok, good to know, but we didn’t come all the way to Vietnam to shop for clothes.
So, what did we do? Came all the way to Vietnam and shopped for clothes.
Ya win some – ya lose some, right? This time we won big!
Once it occurred to us that Shane needed a new suit for his Ph.D. defense we decided to check out the hype. And with over 400 tailors to choose from, it was a hard decision. There are shops for all budgets, so thanks to some Tripadvisor reviews and a few backpacker blogs we settled on one that was supposedly mid-level price range with glowing reviews: FaiFoo.
We were warmly welcomed and the next thing you know Shane is picking out the fabric, lining, and style of his very own suit and I was choosing the fabric and style for a new dress (gotta look good at the defense, ya know). You make your selections, they measure you, and then off you go with instructions to come back in ~24h for your first fitting.
So, funny story. We ended up going to two different tailors while we were there. On the way to FaiFoo, someone got distracted by banana pancakes.
When we stopped, there was a man already at the stand who started talking to us. Turns out, he and his sisters own “the #4 shop on Tripadvisor!” and he was just so friendly that we ended up going to his shop as well. The picture of Shane being fitted in the bicycle shirt? That’s from our 2nd tailor – Ba-Ri.
You’ll have to wait until the Ph.D. defense post for the final products, but less than 48 hours later Shane was the proud new owner of a black suit, 2 long sleeve shirts, 2 short sleeve button-ups and I, a dress and 2 blouses for a grand total of $240.
The price was INCREDIBLE, but I think what was most impressive to me was the talent of these ladies. They work so hard and quickly to give you a perfectly fitted, quality product in a time-frame that SUITS (see what I did there) your travels. And, they literally have books and books of ideas – you just skim through the books and say “I like this one” and seemingly with a glance they know exactly what you want and how to make it.
Shane is convinced that the next time we make a trip to that side of the world we will make a stop in Hoi An with a list and a dedicated clothing budget.
The 2nd thing Hoi An is known for: lanterns
They are everywhere and they are beautiful! My pictures won’t even do them justice.
Part of the fun of Hoi An was walking around at night, enjoying the lights. Which brings me to a very special night – New Year’s Eve!
New Year’s Eve started out kind of wet. Go figure, you go 950km (~600mi) north the weather changes. We were on the tail end of the rainy season in central Vietnam, and we definitely experienced that. The first day, we kind of dealt with it or happened to be inside during the heavy rain. We did pass a lot of people wearing ponchos though, and kind of snickered to ourselves… HA! Ponchos!
Guess who bought ponchos the next morning?
Obviously, this required a photo shoot.
We spent the morning walking around, seeing the sights. One of which was the famous Japanese Covered Bridge which was built in the early 17th century. The bridge was originally built by the Japanese community in Hoi An to create a link between the city and the Chinese community across the stream.
Lunch that day was a sandwich that required a 45 min wait in line.
Oh bahn mi – how delicious thou art. From what we gathered, bahn mi is just a baguette-style sandwich with whatever toppings they choose, generally a few meats, some veggies, and a few sauces.
We heard about this particular Bahn Mi place from our cousin, Rehana, who had traveled to Hoi An before. Turns out, she visited here BEFORE Anthony Bourdain did and, well, it makes the 45 min wait make more sense.
There were mixed emotions when we finally made it through.
But, it was worth the wait because it was delicious!
The rest of the evening was spent eating sushi and hanging out with the New Year’s Eve crowd in the streets! We found a street party, and rang in the New Year with fireworks, sparklers, and dancing!
Oh, and light up bunny ears. Can’t forget those. Even the boys got in on the action.
For those who don’t know, New Years Day is my birthday! After the festivities of the night before we took it easy, but I was surprised by the fantastic people at our homestay, Pebble Homestay, who legitimately surprised me with a birthday cake and flowers!
And I say legitimately surprised because I never told them it was my birthday. No one in the group told them it was my birthday. The only thing we can figure is they saw the birth date on my passport when we checked in and remembered it, which is such a lovely gesture!
I will say it all went down a little awkwardly though. We were staying in essentially a 2 bedroom apartment within the homestay. As you can see from the picture above, there was this glass partition between the dining area and the bedrooms. We had just come home from lunch and picking up Shane’s suit from the tailor, so everyone had gone to their separate spaces for a bit. Me – to the bed watching TV, Sis & Terry for a nap, and Shane to the …uh…toilet (sorry honey).
The lady who was working, with whom we’d had the most contact, poked her head into the glass partition shortly after we all dispersed holding a cake and flowers in her hand. Thoroughly confused, I had to round up everyone, including my indisposed husband, whilst trying to be polite and excited and secretly figure out who arranged this.
As I said before, the homestay did and it was truly a nice birthday surprise!
We did manage to make it out for one more final Hoi An experience, the water puppet show!
The show itself was in Vietnamese, but there was a short English description before each scene. Water puppetry originated in Vietnam in the 11th century and was a really neat tradition to see. Wooden puppets tell various stories about the life of Vietnamese people and Vietnamese legends. There was the tale of the water buffalo, farmers catching frogs, and the dance of the dragons.
And that about wraps up our time in Hoi An! Unfortunately, it also wrapped up our time as a foursome. We started as six, down to four, and now down to two as Shane and I were heading to Hanoi and Sis and Terry headed a short distance to Da Nang. We asked our homestay host to take a picture of the four of us which started out happy, turned into a “pretend you’re crying” cause we’re sad and evolved into real “sisters sobbing while the host awkwardly looks on”.
And with that, I’ll get a little mushy. I couldn’t have imagined doing this with anyone other than this crew. My sister and I were spoiled for a few years and actually lived in the same place where (in my opinion) we forged the bond that we have today. This trip was the most consecutive time we’ve spent together since that period 7 years ago.
To (kind of) quote the old Mastercard commercial.
Round-trip plane tickets to Southeast Asia: 800 euros (+ credit card points).
A month with my sister, Terry, and Shane in Cambodia* & Vietnam: priceless
Sis – love ya, mean it!
*and, of course, two weeks with Michelle and Steve!
And for everyone else, next up is our penultimate stop…