Ho Chi Minh and Hoi An
I’ve been to South East Asia a number of times but I’ve always stayed away from Vietnam, mostly because of mixed reviews I’ve heard from other people who have visited the country. I’ve heard the people are pushy and unfriendly and that it’s an industrialized nation without the charms of its less-developed neighbours. I think I should probably stop listening to advice I get from other people. My first impression after a few hours in Ho Chi Minh City was surprised elation: this place is perfect.
A bustling city with markets and easily the best street food I’ve ever eaten can be found on every corner (yes, Thailand included...). In the evenings people set up rows of tiny little plastic chairs right on the street so that foreigners and Vietnamese can mingle and drink giant cold beers that are practically free. Any kind of seafood can be selected and grilled before your eyes; on a whim I ate a fist-sized snail that was shockingly one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten. Impossible. Combine this with captivating museums and people who smile with an unexpected easy sincerity and you’ve got yourself a wonderful place to explore. I honestly can’t even imagine a bad thing to say about this place.
I will admit that it certainly has less of an off-the-beaten-path feel than some of the other places I’ve been but after the extremes of Bangladesh and the mad race through India, I don’t mind arriving in a country offering efficient mini hotels with tidy rooms, fresh towels, air-conditioning, and multiple English movie channels on a flat screen TV - all for ten bucks a night.
After the pleasantly surprising welcome of Ho Chi Minh I left to do some diving in a beach town called Nha Trang. But here the overbearing presence of loud drunk Russians on vacation (this is a personal first) made me decide to leave slightly ahead of schedule for the delightful, if well-touristed, Hoi An. Hoi An used to be a major port city in the 1500s so there is a distinct influence in the architecture from the French, Chinese, and Japanese that used to trade here. After the city was built-up and established as the most important port in South East Asia, the river it accessed filled completely with silt and all shipping activities were moved elsewhere. So for over 200 years this lovely old town was left preserved and abandoned, well, until the tourists rolled in…