Our adventures in Vietnam ended with a few days in Hoi An and Hue. Exploring the southern parts of the country would have to wait until another time as we wanted to Vietnam before Tet, otherwise known as the Chinese New Year, which is a week-long celebration that quite literally paralyzes the whole country. The price of transportation soars as people migrate back to their home towns to spend time with their family, much like we do at Christmas, and nearly everything is closed. There really wasn’t much incentive for us to stay any longer.
Hoi An’s old city center is a beautiful place where the architectural influences of China, Japan and France can still be seen. Well preserved Chinese temples and merchant homes mingle with mustard yellow French colonial buildings, now home to cozy cafés, art galleries or shops selling tourist trinkets, act as a reminder of a time where these nations converged towards Hoi An for commerce and trade. In the evening, the whole of Hoi An’s old city center glows as hundreds of Chinese lanterns are lit. The evenings were my favorite time of the day, not only because of the multicolored lanterns, but also because the city bans motorbike from entering this area for a few hours, allowing us to wander the streets without the constant «Beep Beep» of someone ushering us out of their way. During the day, all of Hoi An, it seemed, smelled of burning incense as people prepared their transition into the year of the rooster. Burning incense, we were told, is meant to keep the good things inside your home and the bad things outside. It can also give the person who lights it the right to a wish, whether it be for health, prosperity or something else.
Our stay in Hoi An was punctuated by fittings at the tailor. Tailor shops are quite literally everywhere and can be counted in the hundreds so we took the opportunity to get some tailored clothing made at a very reasonable price (USD 150 for a bespoke suit!).
Our best moment was undoubtedly the one right before our departure. We had been staying in a homestay – a family home with a few extra rooms that are rented out to tourists like us – run by a nice Vietnamese couple. They always had big smiles on their faces and were more than happy to wave us “Hello” or “Good Night” depending on the time of day. They didn’t speak much English, but that wasn’t a problem. On our last day in Hoi An, just as we were waiting for our bus to pick us up, their daughter invited us to join them for lunch. Of course we readily accepted! While the mother prepared everything, we chatted with the daughter who had a decent level of English. As an appetizer, she presented us with a plate full of rather large and weird looking peanuts. She must have seen the question marks in our eyes because she immediately showed us how to crack them open and eat the reddish brown fruit inside. When we asked her what it was, she had to use Google Translate to find the English name for tamarind. They all thought it was pretty hilarious when I told them I’d never seen fresh tamarind in my life! For those who, like me at the time, have no idea what tamarind is, I can only describe the taste as both sweet and sour at the same time. We enjoyed a few beers and a great moment with this family. As a parting gift, they insisted that we leave with a bag full of tamarind to eat on the bus to Hue. In exchange, we left them with a Polaroid photo of us and the landlady which they are now proudly exposing under the glass, on their coffee table.
Hue, the old capital of Vietnam, was our final stop in this country. Probably because of the rain we encountered which pushed us to cancel our sightseeing plans, Hue was unfortunately not on my list of highlights for Vietnam. The Imperial Palace was interesting enough, but was mostly destroyed during the Vietnam War (or American War as they call it) so there wasn’t much left to see. My more memorable moments were probably eating a good pasta dinner with wine (we really splurged on that one!), running into our cyclist friend Jonathan (funny how you run into the same people when travelling across a country) and, finally, getting my legs waxed by a young Vietnamese man. Notice how I used the term “memorable” rather than, for example, “best” or “pleasant”. The first two were definitely pleasant, even if the wine we drank wasn’t any good, but the third event was anything but that. Without going into full detail here, imagine a young Vietnamese guy, who has never seen a wax strip in his life, trying to use a dysfunctional old roll on wax dispenser with one hand while using his other hand to hold his cell phone/flashlight (we were in a dark massage room and he refused to turn the lights on). Gentlemen, in case you cannot relate as much as my female readers, let me just note that it is highly unusual to have a man provide any form of aesthetic service other than a hair cut, especially a waxing. For those who wonder why I didn’t simply get up and run out of the spa as fast as I could, please understand that it was actually extremely difficult to find a place that offered waxing services in Hue, so when I found a place that did, I jumped on the occasion, even if it did cost USD 20! After all this, I would be very curious to know how Vietnamese women deal with this “issue” because wax is clearly not a popular solution.
Our journey to Laos or the bus ride from hell
We were picked up at 9AM by a van that brought us to our bus after having picked up a bunch of other backpackers from their hostels. We all piled into the sleeper bus, which was already half full with boxes and boxes of dragon fruit, totally sealing off the access to the toilet in the back. I could feel my peanut-sized bladder filling up instantly, but I tried to stay positive: at least we were not transporting livestock!
Then we all patiently waited for the next 3-4 hours. I assure you that no one had bothered to mention to anyone that we weren’t leaving until 3PM, so we all kind of sat there, occasionally glancing at our watches and making half-hearted jokes about how inefficient Vietnamese transportation is. After about 2h30 of asking ourselves what the f*** was going on, Julien decided to step up and take matters into his own hands. As the driver was no where to be seen – he mysteriously disappeared after having ushered everyone into the bus – Julien figured the best way to get someone’s attention was to walk up to the driver’s seat and honk the bus’ horn. I swear to God, I don’t think anyone expected it to be so loud! Everyone in the bus’ vicinity jumped about 10cm in their chairs upon hearing the really loud « HOOOOONK ». Although this didn’t succeed in conjuring the driver out of thin air, it did motivate one of the locals to come remove the key out of the ignition, just in case we decided to drive ourselves to Laos.
To make a long story short, we all safely arrived in Savannakhet, Laos, at 3AM the next day. Our journey was interrupted only to pack additional cargo onto the top of the bus, pick up more and drop off locals, fill the gas tank and cross the border into Laos by foot, at night. The border crossing itself went fine, but it was quite a strange feeling, to be walking across the border at that time of the day; I couldn’t help but think about the thousands of people who try to cross borders illegally by foot, in the dark of night. After crossing into Laos, we were not allowed 15 minutes to eat a noodle soup by the driver because all of a sudden this guy was in a rush to be on his way, so our diet throughout the whole trip consisted of cookies, raisins, and squid flavored crunchy balls. In fact, these aren’t as gross as they sound.
Looking back at the whole journey now, it wasn’t all that bad.