Thursday, 13 August 2015

Nha Trang and Hoi An

From Ho Chi Minh City we began our journey north up the coast of Vietnam. We have taken lots of overnight buses in the seven months of globe-trotting so far but these ones are the strangest. Actual beds are lined up in rows of three the length of the bus with tiny corridors inbetween. When I first saw these I thought they'd be great but unfortunately they just arent quite right. With a alcove for your feet and bag (which is too small) and a strange shaped contour to the bed (which is also too small) it makes for a rough nights sleep. BUT I cant complain as it saves money on hostels and gets us from A to B safely! So after a 10 hour journey we arrived in Nha Trang which is popular for it's claim of being Vietnam's beach capital.

As with any top beach destination there will always be lots of tourists but we were pleased to find that in between the high rise resorts there was still the hustle and bustle of normal local life which gave the place a bit of substance for us to take in. 
By day we spent our time on the beach which was incredibly beautiful and powerfully hot. Through the wavering haze over the horizon several tropical islands can be seen surrounding the crescent shaped bay. Because Nha Trang has its own micro-climate, the mercury was hovering around 35 degrees with a weather report claiming it felt more like 42, so after a few hours under the rays, we retreated to the safety of the shade to munch on steaming corn on the cob sold by ladies walking the sands wearing the typical Asian conical hats. 

Every place we go to becomes part of our culinary journey and Nha Trang will be remembered as the place we first had Banh Mi which is so much more than just a sandwich. Harking back to the French colonialism and the introduction of crusty bread, the Vietnamese have taken that European staple and made it their own by stuffing it with almost anything and everything. A combination of meat, greens, pickled items, herby sauces and fiery chilies make for a mouthwatering quick bite which can be found, without exaggeration, everywhere! 
A few days of good food and sunny relaxation later and we were in Hoi An, one of the nation's wealthiest towns not only in monetary terms but also by the richness and abundance of heritage and culture. An old port town, Hoi An is now also on the map for the abundance of tailoring shops creating anything and everything that the mind could conjure up. On our first day we walked to the old town which in itself is absolutely gorgeous with yellow-washed walls covered in creeping fuschia bougainvillea with lanterns swinging from the trees shading the pedestrianised area. 

Here is where the master craftsmen - and woman - can be found deftly pulling needle and thread with usually no pattern at all; their skill has been passed down the line from generation to generation. We browsed in many shops before settling on one which was able to cater for my friends eccentric tastes (leopard print shirt anyone?). Before I knew it i had been swept along in the excitement and was being measured for a full-length fitted jumpsuit. The process was a swift, easy one which only made us more excited to return later that night to make any adjustments.

We whiled away the afternoon wandering around the graceful and atmospheric old town, seeing the intricately carved Japanese Covered Bridge, chinese temples of worship and many lovingly preserved ethnic houses. At 6pm we went back to the clothes shop to see our custom made garments for the first time and we were blown away by the detail and skill that had been put into making exactly what we asked for. A few alterations were penned down and we were to collect our items the next morning. Whilst not cheap, by no means were they expensive for the quality of the fabric and the skill involved and ultimately, a great experience. 

We ate out that night and tasted Cao Lau for the first time. This is Hoi An's signature dish and is made from chewy noodles, Char Sui smoky pork, crisp greens, crunchy croutons and refreshing bean sprouts; resulting in a cornucopia of flavours hitting the tastebuds. Paired with an iced Vietnam tea, this dish is perfect for a witheringly hot afternoon and is a top favourite, not only with visitors and locals, but internationally too as famous chefs have descended on the town to try, and fail, to get their hands on the recipe. Hoi An is a concentrated mecca for foodies with an abundance of cooking classes and schools, and markets teeming with fresh produce and regional favourites.

The next day we hired a couple of bicycles as our means of transport to the beach, located a short 4km out of town. The roads are a frantic mess of cyclos, cars, motorbikes and cyclists, coming from all directions with no care for road etiquette but somehow it just works, as if the drivers are working on a communal inner GPS, so we had no problem gliding down the roads, tinkling our bell as we went. (You know what they say, do as the locals do!). We reached Cua Dai beach after cycling alongside the tributary rivers, part cultivated for crop growing, part emptying out into the ocean. This area will no doubt become the new 'It' place to go in years to come and hotel complexes were being thrown up all around us. I can understand why as the place is incredibly beautiful, I just hope that the tranquility is not forgotten in the race to conquer the area. The beach was wonderful; it was peaceful enough to really relax without being pestered by hawkers flogging souvenirs and the sand and water were that rich idyllic shade captured in the stereotypical beach photo.We spent the day here swimming in the tropical sea and hiding under the shade, reading our books. The perfect beach day!

That night we ate Ca Kho To, or fish in caramel sauce, which came served bubbling away in a claypot served with sticky aromatic rice. The sweetness of the caramel complimented the sour hit of the baked pineapple and among this flavour battle, the fish flaked and fell apart in my mouth. The best way to my heart is usually through my stomach and Hoi An did just that. It is my favourite place so far and definitely worth the international accolade and listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.