Lanterns and Tourists

14th FEBRUARY 2019

I’m downstairs for my final Homestay breakfast in Da Nang, thinking that once again Lin will have left all the ingredients out for me. Instead, she has ridden her scooter back from work just so she can prepare breakfast for myself and one other Chinese guest. I’m almost embarrassed by her level of helpfulness, which goes far, far beyond what I’d expect from any accommodation. She also allows me to remain at their house until noon as today’s short trip means I’m able to start cycling later. When it does come time for me to depart, Lin shows up yet again on her scooter just so she can say Goodbye. I’m astounded by her attentiveness, although she could just be checking that I’m not making off with half the household possessions.

I leave Da Nang via the Dragon Bridge, as I need to get some daytime pictures of this bizarre spectacle, then continue riding South. About 10km further on I reach the Marble Mountains site, which Lin had recommended I stop at. There are five large, rocky hills that are home to Buddhist temples, pagodas, tunnels, caves and even steps up the inside of one mountain. It sounds like a place worth exploring, but when I arrive there’s an absolute glut of tourist buses at the entrance and an army of street hawkers shouting at me. I really can’t be doing with this, so I simply turn around and head straight off again.

Today I’m taking the coastal route to Hoi An, thankful that I’ve no need to go near the busy QL1A road. It’s only a 25km cycle, so I trundle along, stop for a Banh Mi lunch and reach the outskirts of Hoi An before I know it. I find my way to the Xanh Lá Homestay which, with its colour scheme, almost certainly translates as Green House. The owners are lovely, and have three generations of their family living in a two storey house next to the rooms. I chain my bike to a palm tree in their front yard, before settling into one of the larger and more modern rooms I’ve had on this trip. This place is classed as ‘Budget’ on my accommodation website, but it feels like luxury to me. The shower head is wider than I am.

Later I go for a walk into Hoi An’s Old Town for some food and stop at a restaurant that overlooks the wide, lazy Thu Bồn river. I order Mi Quang, which I’m told is a noodle dish peculiar to Central Vietnam. It’s basically wide, flat noodles with prawns and veggies in a tasty, yellowy broth. For a texture contrast it’s topped off with peanuts and a handful of crispy rice crackers. Wow, that’s bloody delicious ! When I’m done I order a beer and sit and people-watch the pavement out front and the river beyond. As darkness begins to fall every vessel on the river turns on it’s colourful lights and lanterns, so that the whole area becomes a picture of bobbing reds, pinks, greens and blues. It’s a magical sight. The restaurant has some really chilled, hypnotic Asian music playing too, which adds to the whole ambience. I order another beer. I’m having one of those ‘moments in time’ I get on cycle trips where there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be right now. I sit there happy as a clam and soak up the surroundings.

I toy with having another beer, but instead I take a walk along the riverside. My God, it’s busy ! There are throngs of tourists everywhere, meaning I can barely move faster than a shuffle. Nearly every street has displays of coloured lanterns strung above them and people are paying to release floating candles down the river. I walk across a wooden bridge to an island where Hoi An’s famous lantern shops are situated and try to take some arty photos of the vivid, multi-coloured globes. I spend a while just wandering around and taking in the sights before walking back to the Homestay, feeling totally at peace with the world.

Breakfast the following morning is taken at a table outside my room and consists of an apple-heavy bowl of fruit with yoghurt and a mixed fruit shake. Although this is a remarkably healthy option for me, I have to say I’ve still been eating a lot better on this trip than I normally do. Usually I’m devouring heaps of chocolate and biscuits for energy, but this time I’ve not strayed far from a diet of noodles, rice, meat, veggies and fruit. I’m not even missing or thinking about the naughty food, so I suppose that’s got to be a good thing.

The grandfather of the house is a kindly old gent who smiles and asks ‘How are you?’ every time I see him, although that seems to be the limit of his English. His daughter, Hương, tells me that he fought in the Vietnam War when he was fourteen years old, in the vast system of tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City that the Viet Cong used for shelter, storage and supply routes. In those days kids would live in the skinniest of tunnels for days on end, alongside stinging ants and mosquitos, only popping up at night to forage for food or to shoot Americans. If they were spotted they would retreat to their tunnels and pull the earth roof back over their heads. Most times the Americans had no clue that they were so close. Hương tells me that ‘We followed Uncle Ho’, meaning that her father fought for North Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh. It’s almost incomprehensible that this was the life of a fourteen year old kid during that war. He wasn’t forced to do this though, he proudly volunteered to fight for his country. Despite all their firepower, the Americans severely underestimated the spirit and courage of ordinary Vietnamese.

A little cycle in and around Hoi An is as far as I get today. I take a spin to the beach, where a bloke wants money from me just for parking my bike, so I move on purely out of principle. Then a beachside Banh Mi stall charges 30,000 Vietnamese Dong for one Banh Mi, whereas yesterday I got TWO for 20,000 ! Because I’m at the beach and because Hoi An is such a tourist trap, consequently things are much more expensive. In a strong headwind I ride down to the river mouth, past plush resorts on the water’s edge that offer no access to the beach beyond them. Then it’s back to town on a raised road through a sea of flooded green rice fields. Groups of women in wide, conical hats are back-breakingly bent over and tending to the crop. It makes for a great photograph but it must be tough, arduous work.

In the afternoon I take a siesta in true Vietnamese style, before having a little chat outside with the lady from the room next door. She’s a seventy-five year old Canadian who runs a clothing shop in Canada and spends every winter in Hoi An sourcing clothes to ship back home. (Hoi An is also famous for tailored clothes, as well as lanterns.) A recent hip operation hasn’t slowed her down, although she has been confined to a ground floor room while she recovers. After our chat she collars me to lift some of her heavy possessions up to the first floor where she’ll be moving shortly.

For dinner I walk back towards town and stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe a little bit before the Old Town. Because it’s not on the riverside it doesn’t come with the same tranquil view as last night’s meal, although it is much better value for money. I get a noodle dish, seven small spring rolls and a soft drink for around £3.00. Afterwards I walk into the lantern-filled Old Town again, where the mass tourist hordes are already starting to gather. Whereas last night I was at one with the universe, tonight I just can’t be arsed manouvering through all the bodies. Although Hoi An is a lovely spot, the sheer volume of tourists would get very annoying, very quickly. I return to the sanctity of my Homestay, which is just far enough from the Old Town to allow for a lovely quiet night.


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