Sunday, June 6, 2010

Hoi An - Tailored to Please

We are currently staying at the Phuoc An Hotel in Hoi An, which is about halfway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as everyone still calls it over here).

The hotel is very nice, although slightly pricey at a whopping $42 per night for a double room. However, the pool, freshly cooked omelets and banana pancakes and well appointed rooms with dark, lacquered furniture and gold silk pillows goes some way to justifying the price. The location is great, only a couple of blocks from the main restaurant strip. However, it is tempting to not even bother with the restaurant strip when you have Cafe 43 right next door.

Let me explain... Cafe 43 is a restaurant which has attracted something of a cult following here in Hoi An. It is not much to look at, when compared with the other places across the road, with it's folding tables and mis-matched chairs. We knew that we had to go in when we walked past and saw that it was packed, even though the other restaurants were completely deserted.

We soon found out why. The food is fantastic (especially the stuffed squid, white rose and coconut ice-cream), the service is friendly and the beer is very, very cheap. It is called "fresh beer" and is basically a home brew which costs roughly $0.25 for half a pint. It almost made me wish that I was a beer drinker... almost. It is so good that you see the same people coming back every day, sometimes more than once a day!

On our first day we shopped around to find a good tailor. This is what most people do here in Hoi An, a city which is famous for its cheap, tailor-made clothes. You can get a suit knocked up within 24 hours for as little as $50! However, you definitely get what you pay for, so if you want something spiffy in cashmere with silk lining you can pay anywhere up to around $400 (I'm not sure whether it would be real cashmere/silk but at least it is a good imitation).

I decided to get a suit with matching skirt and a knee-length winter coat with satin lining and a hood, in preparation for Scottish weather. Michael wanted to get a suit with 2 pairs of trousers and a fake leather jacket.

After shopping around for half the day we were pretty exhausted by the heat and went back to the hotel to chill in the air-conditioning. That evening we discovered Cafe 43 and had a fantastic multi-course dinner that cost about $10 for the both of us.

The next day we eventually decided to go back to the first place that we visited. It is called Nguyen Tailors and, having seen the finished product after three fittings, I think it was a good choice. We saw some return customers, so hopefully that means that their clothes don't disintegrate after the first wash. Also, the girl that we dealt with (Phu'ong) was very nice and had great English. She suggested alterations without us having to even ask for them and was happy to accommodate any request, no matter how trivial.

That evening we returned to Cafe 43 and also organised a trip to the ruins of My Son for the following day, where we saw the remains of a Hindu temple complex built by the ancient Cham empire.

The temple site was used between the 4th and 14th century AD, however most of the buildings still standing date from about the 10th century. It is a UNESCO world heritage site and is considered to be the most important site of its nature in Southeast Asia. It was abandoned around the 16th century and then rediscovered in 1898. Restoration began in 1937, however the Americans bombed the hell out of it in 1969, destroying many of the buildings. The craters are still visible as a lasting reminder of the atrocities of war. From what remains you can imagine how spectacular it must have looked before.  Nice work Nixon - destroying one of the most important archaeological sites of an extinct civilisation - thanks a lot. Apparently the surrounding area is still considered dangerous due to unexploded land-mines although we were not told this by our guide and only found out afterwards. Lucky that we did not decide to stray from the path!

While walking around the ruins we struck up conversation with a German backpacker called Daniel. He was really interesting and a veritable mine (pun not intended) of information, as he has already been to nearly all of the places that we are planning to go (southern Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). After seeing the ruins we said goodbye, as we were taking a boat back to Hoi An and he was staying on the bus. Turns out he was the only person not taking the boat, so he had the whole bus to himself! The boat ride was very pleasant, as it was a hot day and the cool breeze on the river was very refreshing.

That evening we had our first fitting and were very impressed with how the clothes turned out. My suit pants were a perfect fit first time, which is impressive since I am usually very fussy and find it hard to find trousers that fit. After that we returned to the hotel and Michael got a haircut. The hairdresser actually came into our room and cut his hair in the bathroom, as you can see from the picture opposite.

The next day we had a a fitting at the tailors in the afternoon and then another one in the evening. After seeing my coat in the afternoon, Michael was so jealous that he decided to get one as well. They said "no problem, come back in 6 hours". We were a bit sceptical, but sure enough, when we returned, there was Michael's coat, perfectly fitted and exactly as he asked for! There are so many people producing clothes in this town, that our tailor said that it actually only takes one and a half hours to make a suit! You might think that this would result in poor quality and I've heard that this is the case in some places, however we were very happy with our purchases. My suit is the same quality as my Portmans suit which I bought in Australia for $350 (and that was on sale!). However, my new suit fits perfectly and was less than half the price at only $130.

In between the fittings we did a bit of sightseeing around the old buildings in the main part of town. We borrowed a couple of bikes from the hotel, which is mostly how we have been getting around recently, as walking for any longer than 5 minutes in this heat is not fun. It is also a great way to get around the city because you get the breeze and also you get to see heaps more than walking. I think that it is also a better way to see the city than a motorbike, because there is more time to look around. I did feel a bit silly wearing my helmet though, since nobody over here wears them except when on motorbikes (and that is just because it is the law). A few people have given us funny looks, but it's a small price to pay for not being dead, so I try not to let it worry me too much.

Anyway, the route that we took was recommended in the Lonely Planet, although I think that some of the sites were not that impressive. We had to buy a ticket that admits you to five of one of the many old buildings, shrines and museums around town. Some of them were a waste of a ticket, such as the Japanese covered bridge. That was pretty unfair, since essentially you are having to pay to cross a bridge, even though the locals don't have to. It was not even that much to look at, and much prettier from the outside anyway.

The Chinese Assembly Halls were pretty cool though, we went to one which was built in the 17th century and is still in a great condition. The statues and carvings were very colourful and intricate and the hall itself was impressive with the incense spirals hanging down from the ceiling. People write their prayers and hang them from the spirals made of incense and then they are set alight to slowly burn and leave the whole place smelling amazing. I think it would be awesome to get mozzie coils made like this, so that you could hang them around the patio. It would be decorative and would definitely keep the mozzies away! If doing a tour of the Old Town I would recommend saving your tickets for three of the Chinese Assembly Halls (there are like 10 of them), plus a cultural performance and maybe one of the restored old French houses such as the Museum of Trading Ceramics.

Yesterday afternoon we went next door to have lunch at Cafe 43 but alas, we forgot that they have closed up shop until the 13th! We were devastated, but hopefully someday we will be back in Hoi An so that we can go back (One customer even went so far as to suggest kidnapping the chef, but decided against it as it would be difficult to explain to customs officials why you have a bound and gagged Vietnamese person in your suitcase). Instead we decided to get lunch near the tailor's, where we were headed to finalise our purchases and arrange for them to be shipped ahead of us to Scotland.

That cleaned out our wallets, so we went next door to take out some money from the ATM. It was then that the scariest thing occurred, probably the scariest experience of the whole trip... the ATM ate my debit card!!! I was frantic, since it was a Saturday and we were leaving on Monday morning. Luckily however, I managed to get hold of the guy who operates the bank branch/currency exchange office directly behind the ATM. I think he actually lives there because when I went inside there was a bed in the office. I am just lucky that I managed to catch him when he went outside. He organised for someone to come and unlock the ATM so that I could get my card back, for which I was extremely thankful, because if this had happened in Perth I would have had to wait until Monday! So it changed what could have been a catastrophe into a mild annoyance, since we had to wait around for nearly two hours.

This ruined our plans of taking the scooter, which we had hired for the day, down to the beach which is about 5 kilometres away. Instead we (when I say we I mean Michael with me hanging on at the back) just took it around town and then a bit out of town for a good view of the rice fields. It is great for me as I get to look around, but probably not so much for Michael since he has to keep his eyes on the road to watch out for bicycles, other scooters and motorbikes, cars, trucks, people burning rubbish and cows (not people burning cows, just cows in general).

Since Cafe 43 was closed we had to make do with one of the other places downstairs for dinner. Except that they weren't deserted last night! It was really funny to watch people walk up to Cafe 43, realise it was closed and walk reluctantly over to the other side of the road. One group of guys actually walked straight in and started greeting the family who runs the restaurant, not realising that it was closed. In fact, the first place that we passed was completely full and we had to go to the restaurant next door. It was one of the worst dinners that we have had so far and it was also more expensive than Cafe 43. In particular the fish was extremely hard and dry so we only had a couple of mouthfuls. I don't think that the lady believed our explanation that we just weren't that hungry, so she gave us a discount. I don't know what we are going to do for dinner tonight, but we definitely won't be going back there!

This morning we hired another scooter and finally made it to the beach. We are completely spoilt for beaches in WA, so we did not find this beach particularly impressive. It's actually the nicest beach that we've seen so far on the trip, with clear-ish water and sand that was fairly clean. Picture the worst beach that you've ever been to in WA... this beach was like that. It was still very enjoyable though to sit on deck chairs sipping our cocktails while reading our books. We also had some blue sky and a nice breeze, so we ended up staying until late afternoon.

Unfortunately our peace and quiet was slightly ruined by all of the people that kept coming up to us trying to sell us stuff. We ended up buying a couple of things, in the hope that they would leave us alone. This did not really work, because buying one thing is never enough and if you buy from one person then another will use that as leverage to make you feel guilty that you haven't bought anything from them. When they figure out that you really don't want anything they start with the whole guilt trip about how they are so poor and trying to support their family and send their children to school. It breaks your heart, but unfortunately if I started buying something from everyone who approaches me I'd go bankrupt. It's especially horrible when they send little children, because you know that you shouldn't buy anything, but how can you say no to a 6-year old who pleads with you that she doesn't have enough money for breakfast?? As soon as you buy something you know that it was the wrong thing to do, since you don't want to encourage the exploitation of children in this manner. I've read that they don't actually see any of the money from the sales and their future would be better if they were spending the time in school instead. We have slipped a couple of times though, but I know that we will have to get get used to it before we get to Cambodia, where things are much worse than a bit of tourist exploitation.

After we left the beach we went to a nice restaurant, right on the river, that we had spotted on the way in. The food was just ok, but the setting was very peaceful and there weren't any more people trying to rip us off. Now we are back at the hotel, trying to decide where to go for dinner on our last night in Hoi An.

Tomorrow we head to Nah Trang, which we are really looking forward to. The beaches are apparently really nice (we shall see!) and it seems to have something of a reputation for being a party town. Well, our hostel seems to have that reputation anyway...

Stay tuned for Nah Trang!

No comments:

Post a Comment