Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Ancient Hedonism

Ahhh the ancient town of Hoi An, not the central jewel in Vietnam’s crown – that privilege belongs to the imperial town of Hue – but definitely one of great history as a trading sea-port for centuries, quite well preserved and wonderfully quiet. I wish I could espouse its distinctiveness some more, but now houses as many lantern shops, tailors, shoe-shops, backpacker dives, travel agents, lacquerware stores, Chinese descendants, monuments and pagodas and yummy restaurants as any of Vietnam’s major cities. Not that I’m complaining when it comes to the eating part, though.

So instead of just making you puke-green with jealousy as I know no-one really reads anything about anyone else’s holiday (at least I know I don’t thanks to a childhood memory of some distant moustached aunty’s endless slides of her Namaqualand holiday), I’ve decided to put things in list form.

So, in no particular order, here’s my list of what I did in Hoi An, and it was so good you may as well take it as a list of the “Top things to do in Hoi An”. Actually, let me rephrase that as “Top things to do in Hoi An on a limited budget, whilst constantly searching for strong coffee or a drink, with a massive propensity for eating and all things hedonistic and a very limited concentration span”, more accurately.

1) Living quarters

We stayed at the prodigiously-spectacular-on-a-small-internet-picture Southern Hotel, also known as Khach San Phuong Nam. To be honest, it wasn’t bad in real life, seeing as we got our room for half the normal price – oh the joys of internet booking! A bit out of town, but with a nice swimming pool and eerie concierges who glare at you in a unnerving manner, if you’re into that sort of Norman Bates stuff.

Poolside non-action at Southern Hotel

2) Made to Measure

We perused the cloth market and found the same lady Sarah had her clothes made at three years ago (such good quality she can still wear all of the clothes to this day). Check out Ly Ly’s shop – they’ve got high quality cloth, speak English well, have everything tailored by the next day, are happy to readjust all the clothes and are way cheaper than the kazillion tailor shops peppering the streets of Hoi An. I got two dapper suits, two shirts and a kimono tailored for about $125! The one suit is a funky pin-striped one-vent suit with slightly flared sleeves and legs, two buttons and an elongated collar. The kimono is just plain porno: full-length dragon-patterned black silk with red sash and lining. Think Triad leader meets the Don meets Ron Jeremy and you’ve got the idea. I hope I don’t pick up weight otherwise it would all be futile…

Inside the cloth market

The fabric of life

3) Don't sell your sole, just get new ones made

We were on a “let’s get random stuff tailored” frenzy so we got some shoes and boots made. I got a pair of work shoes as I’ve been wearing the same shoes to work that I wore to my Matric Dance eight years ago. Flappity flop. Sad, I know. The new ones are nice comfy, black leather slip-ons with white stitching.

4) Hobbit treatment

As we were getting our feet measured another girl wandered up and said: “You should get your feet shaved”. No, not in the hobbit sense of the word as I don’t have hair sprouting from my little appendages, but I do have a callous or two from playing football which she wanted to shave the dead skin from. Persuaded and intrigued, we headed over to her beauty salon where, thanks to my sexual security I’m not afraid to say, I received a bit of a foot wash and pedicure followed by the eerily pleasing dead-skin shaving. The old lady who did it joked afterwards that the dead skin she’s shed into a bowl of water looked like chao or rice soup/gruel…erm.

5) Food, glorious food!

Needless to say, my girlfriend and I both having an insatiable penchant for eating and drinking, thus we gluttonised our way through Hoi An. First we called on Morning Glory Restaurant, run by a local celebrity chef called Ms Vy who runs three other eateries of note in the ancient town; White Lantern, Mermaid and the Cargo Club across the road. Fantastic and affordable specialties and traditional fare like the prawn curry that would definitely have had us coming back if we had another day or two in town.

Instead, the bestowed our humble patronage upon Mango Rooms the following night. Fusion at its finest, this place is worth its reputation (and price). We had a nice bottle of the house white with the Tropical Lush Salad to start: seared tuna with orange/ginger/soy dressing, greens and herbs, mustard sprouts, orange slices and watermelon cubes. As a main, I had the pan-seared chicken breast marinated in lemongrass, garlic and curry with a yummy pineapple/tomato/ginger sauce with garlic asparagus. Sarah had the pan-seared tofu cubes seasoned with other yummy local ingredients and both were pretty awesome. Go there. Go there now.

We also tried the local specialties of banh vac (white rose), hoanh thanh (fried wontons with a sweet and sour sauce) and cao lau (a kind of fried pork-ish noodle soup with crouton-like thingies) a few times. The banh vac was similar to southern nem, glutinous rice shaped like a rose encasing a tiny shrimp – kind of bland not bad with nuoc cham (dipping sauce). The hoanh thanh was great as was the cao lau, except for occasionally finding a leafy herb that we unaffectionately refer to as “feet” – a broad, dark green leaf taxi drivers in Vietnam like to put bushes of in the back of their taxis for some inexplicable reason, causing their cars to smell like old, mouldy feet. Unfortunately it also finds its way into some dishes and requires a diligent eye to fish them out before consumption.

A tasty bowl of cao lau

Fried wontons with sweet and sour sauce

6) Learn to cook

We also went to Sakura Restaurant one night and were impressed by their mix ‘n match cooking class they offered and the friendly, personal service of their manager. We tailored a menu of five dishes Sarah wanted to learn to cook (and secretly so did I) and were invited to come learn from their chef Duc the next day. You’ll have to wait for the next post on the results, which were spectacular.

Cooking course in action at Sakura

7) Beach living

We took the bike out to Cua Dai Beach, about 5 kms from the centre, hired a beach chair, ordered some food and a drink, whipped out our books and dozed for a couple of hours. Perfect – except for the food which made both of us pretty sick for days!

8) All-marbled out

We rented a bike early on our last day and headed out to the fabled Marble Mountains – five marble peaks jutting out of the flat surrounding countryside half way between Danang and Hoi An. A difficult climb is rewarded with some beautiful caves, Buddha statues, shrines, caves, views and some quirky and disturbing Hindu statues. Sadly enough, the marble from the area has been exploited to such an extent that the local producers have to order marble from China to sell to buyers!

Inside Marble Mountain

Yes, it was truly three days and nights of Ancient Hedonism. Highly recommended!


sarah said...

despite the futile list making attempt, i am still green green green with jealousy!


i want to pack this very minute

henno said...

Glad to see you share the over-indulgment sentiment :) You really should travel through, it's not that much to fly from JP and once you're here it's even cheaper.

Pham ha said...

Through your post I know that You had a great time in Hoi An. You're very lucky.On the other hand, I had a bad time in Hong Kong. I am allergic to food there. I don't know the reason..Anyway, It's terrible..So now I feel afraid of Chinese food.

henno said...

Chinese...hmmm. Always a bit hit and miss. Hope you're feeling better!

sarah said...

i do plan on coming! maybe even this summer - although travelling in the heat makes me unhappy. my friend and i are trying to find a deal for vietnam and cambodia... so we shall have to see!

and the same goes for you - come visit!

henno said...

Killer - it's rainy season so it'll be slightly less hot, more humid...sort of like a sauna. Erm, I'm not really selling it very well am I? Just come. There, better.

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