So we return to where we left off: in the central Vietnamese city of Da Nang.
Before catching the bus to Hội An, I spent a morning discovering the city’s avenues and narrow backstreets. I found these glorious blue shutters, observed cyclo drivers dozing in the shade, women peeling vegetables on the pavement, motorcycles on every corner. There isn’t a huge amount of ‘tourist’ fodder in town, but it felt like a genuine place, representative of Vietnam today, a blend of centuries-old traditions and burgeoning modern commerce.
Hội An is geared towards tourists, but a beautiful place to wander around not doing much for a few days. My travel partner was felled by another bout of the flu, but my Singapore-resident mama and friend had already arranged to meet us there, so I spent two sunny, blue-skied days exploring with them, ferrying tea and pastries back to the invalid’s bedside at appropriate intervals.
Hội An’s trademark silk lanterns, beautiful and evocative of an Old Asia, long lost on most parts of the continent. The Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a rare example of a well-preserved Southeast Asian trading port. As a result, it’s crammed with visitors, but still worth seeing for a day or two.
The highlight of our time in Hội An was undoubtedly a countryside cycling tour with a pair of chatty and mischevious young women, with whom we visited local weavers, a rice wine factory and took a boat across the river crammed with motorcycles, single speeds and people! It’s these kinds of unique experiences that reaffirmed my motivation for taking this madcap journey across a continent: being thrown into unusual, once-in-a-lifetime situations and meeting local tradespeople. This gorgeous woman had such a bright and beautiful smile. She’s been weaving sleeping mats for her village for over forty years, using threads dyed with indigenous vegetables. It’s not an easy job – in fact, she told us she’s damaged her spine as a result – and yet look at that joy. A lesson to take away and remember.
After a goodbye to my mama, which arrived all too quickly, we boarded our last sleeper train of the Vietnamese leg. Unfortunately, I’d caught the same bug as M. by then, so we spent the twelve hours in a feverish delirium, excessively glad that the two bunks above us remained unoccupied. “Making memories!” as my mother would say.
Thankfully the long and slightly frenzied journey was entirely worth it. Ninh Bình province was, without hesitation, our favourite stop in Vietnam. Fresh country air and imposing limestone karsts soaring into the sky; storks settling in trees, so white you might mistake them for magnolia blooms; an incredibly friendly host in ‘Mr Tony’ who plied us with hot, sweet lemon tea for our angry throats; a quiet, peaceful aura we’d not yet encountered in all of Vietnam.
The lemon tea and cool air worked their magic and by the next day, we both felt well enough to cycle around Tam Coc Lake and soothe our throats with bowls of piping hot pho. The day after that, we were almost fully recovered and decided to rent a motorbike and cram in as much countryside as possible to make up for lost time. I’ll leave you with a few of my favourite shots. The province really was a photographer’s dream.
Coming in next week’s instalment: a few days in Hanoi and a return to Singapore! Thanks you, as always, for reading. I’m aware these sort of diary-style posts are a break from my usual style, but in writing them I hope to document the minute details and observations from the road I might otherwise forget. I’ve got a host of more polished travel posts in the pipeline, too, so stay tuned if you’re more that way inclined. ‘Til next time…