Hoi An was a quiet but touristy destination when I first visited in 2005. I enjoyed the old town centre with restaurants well catered for tourists and the beach is only ten minutes away. How different it is eight years later as I return for a short three nights break, taking advantage of the direct flight from Hong Kong to Da Nang. There is now a much larger number of tourists and although the touristy shops still occupies the centre of town, their merchandise now spills out onto the road and turns the once quaint and atmospheric streets into just another tourist centre. That aside, the riverside still maintains a hint of its historical and cultural heritage though its activity is still heavy based on the tourist trade. Nonetheless, this means rather than spending time in the centre, other activities can be sought out.
A great way to spend a day is to take a motor cycle tour of the countryside. Perhaps one of the more adventurous and exhausting activity on offer, a motorbike tour onto the Hai Phon Pass by Hoi An Motorbike Adventure gives a unique perspective on the surrounding area of Hoi An and Da Nang. We ride through small country lanes and villages where children come out a of their houses, wave and high five us as the sound of the 2 stroke Minsk motorbikes resonate down the lane. There is no other way to appreciate the idiosyncrasies of local traffic than travelling at 40mph down what looks like a perfectly wide avenue, only to be greeted by a truck coming out of a side road on the right without the merest pause while a coach is turning left from the other side of the road. It is a shame that the weather is dull and occasionally drizzly but going up and down Hai Phon Pass twice is a fantastic experience on an old rumbling motorbike where different parts rattle at different rev range. At the end of the day, there is a sense of achievement and relieve as we all make it unscathed and this is definitely one of the best activity on my travels ever.
There are two lovely pairs of new weds on the tour and we all go out to dinner afterwards for a generous amount of rice wine at the Secret Garden. A failed attempt to find the local fresh beer (Bai Hoi) means Barney and Elaine from New Zealand and I decide to meet up the next day by the river to continue our search.
After a relaxing morning at the hotel, I arrive at the White Sail restaurant for lunch.The Cao Lao arrives quickly enough but the recommended fried crab in tamarind sauce is taking its time. It arrives just as I have to leave to meet Elaine and Barney and the waitress kindly packed it in a box for me. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise as I wait for the couple to arrive, I can enjoy the crab sitting on the bench looking at the misty Hoi An by the river. The crab comes in a beautiful sauce and though the crab is meaty, it lacks a natural fresh crab sweetness.
Elaine and Barney eventually show up after their scooter broke down in Da Nang in the morning and we duly find a bar that serves fresh beer which comes at very affordable 4000VDN (20 cent) a glass. Buoyed by last night’s rice wine, Elaine moves us onto the harder stuff which proves far inferior to those from the night before. This spurs us onto a mission to find the true local rice wine which the local drink. After much hunting around, we eventually find a street stall which sells petrol for scooters and also have a bottle of milky colour liquor in a 500ml plastic soft drink bottle. We settle down on our assorted stools in the street and the two small glasses the stall owner found for us. Peculiar is a polite word for describing that milky liquid that passes as local rice wine. While it may not be particularly harsh or sharp, it develops into quite a rough, dirt like after taste which lingers. We soldier on until most of the bottle is finished and it is definitely an interesting, if not a particularly pleasant experience.
If the weather has been better, it would have been a perfect trip. Despite the lack of sleep in the first couple of days, it was still a good break with a variety of activities and met some fun and interesting people.