So far Ismat Abidi's train trips in Vietnam have been pleasant, but the one from Nha Trang was full of bizarre characters, strange odours and constant stopping and starting.
Memorable rural jaunts and satisfying shopping in Vietnam
I never thought it was possible to suffer jet lag from train travel until I disembarked from my second overnight rail journey in Hoi An. So far my train trips in Vietnam had been pleasant, but the one from Nha Trang was full of bizarre characters, strange odours and constant stopping and starting. Nevertheless, trains are an efficient way to move around Vietnam if you're pressed for time; it's an experience and makes you appreciative of public transport systems elsewhere (local ticket prices range from US$20-30 [Dh75-110], depending on distance and class of cabin). As I left the Hoi An station I promised never to moan about the rail network back home ever again, and looked foward to a full night's sleep in a grounded bed.
Hoi An was my favourite city in Vietnam. Once one of the key trading ports of South-east Asia, simply walking around the city reveals traces of its ancient trade ties with Japan and China. The colonial French architecture is a visual delight, and many of these buildings have been converted into shops and cafes. A visit to this city isn't complete without a day-long stroll through the Old Quarter, a Unesco World Heritage Site where only pedestrians and cycles are allowed. This, combined with the French doors and imperial Chinese buildings made me feel as though I'd travelled back in time. Hoi An is one of those places you want to keep going back to and take others with you.
Amongst the arts, handicrafts and tea houses, the most common business seemed to be tailoring shops. The main street, Nguyen Thai Hoc, is full of impressive, high-quality displays of tailored clothes, catering to every style, size and taste imaginable. You can flick through magazines, show tailors the website of your favourite designer or even design your own. I would highly recommend Yaly for bespoke men's and ladies' suits and coats. With more than 200 tailors working upstairs, I had a suit, a few shirts and a winter coat made to order within 12 hours. The store even air-shipped my order back home with a tracking number. The average cost of a tailored shirt was $15-40 (Dh55-147), depending on the material, while suits started at $80 (Dh294).
After several nights of restless sleep on jerky trains and in the odd grimy hostel, the Golf Hoi An Hotel felt like a luxury resort. The quiet location is only a 10-minute cycle ride from central Hoi An, and the breakfast buffet caters to international taste buds ($35 [Dh129] per person per night, including breakfast and free Wi-Fi). I found that the easiest and most enjoyable way to explore Hoi An was by bicycle (20,000 dong; Dh4 for a day's rental). Drivers are courteous to cyclists, so it's very safe and you can park your bike anywhere without worrying if it will be stolen.
My next stop on my way to Hanoi was Huê, Vietnam's ancient capital until the 1940s. I had a memorable day exploring rural Huê and more Vietnamese culture by hopping on a motorbike with a guide and heading out to the rice paddy fields. I was taught about the ingenious farming methods passed down through generations and observed locals making incense sticks and the conical Vietnamese hats. Whizzing through the stunning countryside, I stopped at an old elephant and tiger fighting arena (the only such arena in South-east Asia), a former US base, the Imperial Tombs and ended the five-hour tour watching sunset's reflection in the Perfume River (the motorcycle tour cost 190,000 dong; Dh37).
On my final day in Huê I explored the city on foot. A great walking tour mapped by a local award-winning photgrapher, Phan Cu, starts at his own cafe and takes you through the Imperial City, Forbidden City and over ancient bridges. The food in Mr Cu's cafe is cheap - I wasn't too happy with the seafood noodle dish I ordered but my friend's jacket potato was superb - but the photographic display alone is worth the visit. I picked up a few postcard versions of his work to send to family and friends.
It's difficult to talk about Vietnam without mentioning Halong Bay. When I daydreamed about this trip, the image of kayaking among the limestone islands scattered around the bay often popped into my head. Our travel group cruised round the bay on a junk boat rented for the day and it lived up to my high expectations. I didn't know before I arrived in Halong that there are caves on the islands. The Thien Cung grotto and Dau Go Caves are worth exploring, though the colourful lighting (donated by the Chinese government) somewhat ruins the natural beauty. Halong City itself is a bit of a ghost town, but the bay's majestic beauty makes up for it. Many boat owners offer overnight stays on the bay, which I will try if I return.
My final stop in Vietnam was the capital of Hanoi. Like Ho Chi Minh City, it felt like there were more motorbikes than people. Regrettably, I was in Hanoi on a Friday, the one day of the week when Ho Chi Minh's body - kept in a grand mausoeum - is not on display. I did however, tour his old office, a simple house on stilts and, along with visitors from all over Vietnam, learnt more about the life of the revered national hero.
I found Hanoi's residents somewhat curt towards foreigners when compared to Vietnamese in the rest of the country, and thieves more plentiful. Unlike in Cambodia, where haggling is more of a pleasant sport, in Hanoi it's a battle. I still managed to bag some bargains. My technique of looking "genuinely" shocked at the high price and walking away managed to get the price halved every time. Many guide books and previous visitors suggested seeing Hanoi's water puppet show. I found it to be a tourist gimmick, and with thieves waiting outside the theatre, there are plenty other more worthwhile experiences.
Despite less than glamorous hostel stays and tiring train journeys, I enjoyed exploring Vietnam - the rural areas more than the cities. The French influence is still strong, with fresh baguettes every morning, French road names and a bizarre abundance of La vache qui rit (the Laughing Cow) cheese sold every 15 metres. I don't think I would return to Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, but if ever there's a chance to explore more of rural Vietnam or of a shopping holiday to Hoi An, I'll be on the first plane there. Next week: Ismat heads for Laos