After a day in Haiphong, I take an early morning flight to Da Nang airport and then a car to Hoi An. There are other, more scenic ways to travel but the hour and a half flight was (I just double checked this because I couldn’t believe my bank statement) $18.40, and uh… yeah.
Hoi An had been really high on my list, but I still didn’t really know what to expect. The weather was quite humid, and I was pretty beat, so I had a casual day and wandered around without the goal of seeing anything in particular.
Here are a few things Hai Phong is known for:
- Tailors who will bust out everything from a casual dress to a three-piece professional suit for exceptional prices (~$100 USD for a suit, depending on the tailor and material)
- A night market
- Being cute and very tourist-friendly
Well, my first day a very friendly woman was riding past on her bike and told me to visit her tailor shop, and before I knew it I was buying a shirt, a dress, and a pair of pants for a total of $105 USD. She told me to come back the next day at 6 p.m. for the first fitting.
After dropping a fair bit of money, I decided to keep the party rolling and she walked me over to a massage salon where I got a 60 minute massage, had my first-ever pedicure and had them clip my fingernails because I didn’t pack nail clippers. All told it ran me 580,000 dong, or about $25.
Even though that is beyond cheap, I proceeded to mentally beat myself up about spending so much money for several more days. There are two elements to that: One, my brain’s fondness for self-flagellation, and two, how quickly your (read: my, but it seems to be a common thread among travelers) brain spins out about money here, and about what something is “worth.”
“I wouldn’t pay more than 30,000 dong (less than $2) for a beer,” another tourist told me my first day in Vietnam, when we pay $6 and up for a beer back home without blinking an eye. I’ve caught myself doing the same — I paid 85,000 dong to have my laundry done at one hotel (around $4), and wondered if I should walk around town to see if I could find a better price (nah). Mark and I paid $30 to have our laundry done on the Mediterranean cruise we took earlier this year.
Hoi An is “expensive” compared to other cities — I regularly spent 100,000 dong on dinner (about $4.30 USD) and felt like I was somehow blowing through money. I also got confused about the exchange rate — I’ve been pulling 2 million dong out of the bank thinking it’s about $200 USD, but then I’d spend it in a day or two.
“Holy shit, did I just spend $200 in a day? What am I doing?” I’d start thinking. The other day, I realized 2 million dong is about $85. Ah.
And I’m going to be honest, even though I have (irrationally) been freaking out about money, I’ve also been judging other tourists. At the night market, someone was asking how much a cup of rolled ice cream (very cool — they pour thick milk onto a frozen surface, chop fruit into, and freeze it on the spot in a flat layer, then use a scraper to curl it into little wraps.) Cost: 30,000 dong, $1.29 USD.
“Why so expensive?” the tourist asked. “That’s ridiculous.”
And I couldn’t help but think: Motherfucker, you can’t get a soft serve from McDonald’s for that cheap.
I’ve heard other people brag about managing to get the “local” price for good or services or haggling for the equivalent of $1 USD.
On the one hand, I am traveling rather cheaply — staying mostly in hostels (I have splurged for a cheap private room a few times), choosing to walk rather than take taxis, etc. I’m here in large part due to the incredible exchange rate, which allows me to visit longer. I understand that everybody has a budget.
But I also don’t want to come to Vietnam and pat myself on the back for not spending money. I’ve worked in tourist towns. I’ve lived off tourist money. I don’t want my takeaway from visiting this country to be that I somehow managed to pull a fast one and never spent a dime more than necessary.
OK, digression done.
The next day, I went on a tour to My Son Sanctuary (closer to “me song” than “my son”, but don’t ask me for pronunciation advice, my tonality is god-awful). The temples here are up to 1700 years old. There used to be more than 70, rediscovered by a Frenchman in 1898, but during the Vietnam-American war many of them were destroyed and only a handful remain.
The next few days are a bit of a blur. I picked up my tailored clothes, which look really nice and fit fabulously. I made friends with one of my dorm mates, Harriet, and we went to dinner. Whatever we ate made us both almost immediately sick.
By the next day I was mostly OK (I broke my no-Western food goal and ate French toast for breakfast) and risked a guided bike tour out of Hoi An town to a nearby island village. I’m so glad I did — I had an incredible time with Sanh from Hoi An Adventure. I visited a family who makes rice noodles and rice paper in a semi-traditional manner (most is made in machines these days) and got a chance to try it myself. I met a woodworking artist who enthusiastically showed me around his shop, holding different art pieces up to my nose so I could smell the different woods, burning strips of different statues to release their scents. He helped me carve my name into a piece of wood. Then my guide, Sanh, and I biked through farmland to visit a family who makes traditional floor mats and showed me how the loom works.
A few things Sanh shared with me:
- To make rice paper, soak rice in cold water for 2-4 hours, then run it through a modern machine for 30 minutes to get 10-15 kilos of rice.
- One layer of rice paper makes paper, two layers makes noodles
- People often burn rice husks (uh, definitely did not know rice came in husks) to cook because it’s cheap to buy, and then they use the ash to fertilize the ground.
- We drank a tea made of red bean and black bean
- We ate a snack called “Banh Dap” – rice noodles sandwiched between rice paper with sesame seeds and garlic, dipped in soy sauce
- Each village has a non-denominational worship shrine, where people come by on a regular basis to say prayers and light incense, especially on the 1st and 15th of the month
Afterward, I found out that Zwen and Stella were in town, so I went to dinner with them — where we bumped into Ramona and Florian, two Austrians who were also on the Cat Ba boat, and joined forces with them until around 10:30 p.m.
This morning I walked to a Western-style cafe owned by an Australian with my dorm mate Harriet and then have otherwise been killing time until my sleeper bus to Da Lat. That trip leaves at 5:30 p.m. and takes 14 hours, so… wish me luck.