Mountains and beaches

Our last full day in Hoi An and we decided to do something a little different. I’d been to the Marble Mountains before, and they’re a site worth seeing. But rather than take a trip or get a xe om we opted to hire a couple of mopeds and make the 15km journey ourselves.

Now, Leah had a play on one of these in New Zealand a couple of years ago. I, on the other hand, have never been in control of any 2-wheeled vehicle with a motor on it. Ever. Thankfully, the requirements to hire and drive a moped or motorcyle in Vietnam consist of a handful of cash ($5 per day seems the going rate for a manual) and a blithe disregard for your own personal safety.

I ticked both those boxes, so the young girl next to our hotel happily handed over her new-ish Honda then rang her mate up to see if he could lend her another bike for the other foreigner to buzz about on. Helmets were provided as it’s now law for them to be worn, even by passengers (except small children who I assume are made of rubber in Vietnam) and about a litre of fuel floated in the small tanks. I asked how much we might need to get to the Mountains and back and I was told “three litre, there and back”.

Now fuel’s not too expensive here compared to home (20,000d or roughly 65p per litre) but it’s still money you want to save. On the other hand, you don’t want to be pushing a dry moped back home after a day out. So we got information on the nearest fuel station (one with pumps, not old Coke and Johnny Walker bottles full of unleaded) and boarded our safe transportation devices (that bit’s for my mum). “Slower! Slower! Gently!” The cries of the girl worried about her moped vanished into the distance as I zipped down the street and around the corner, somewhat in control once I’d got the thing going.

Mopeds are dead easy to control once you have them up to speed, but the whole accelerating from a stop bit takes some getting used to. Still, we both made it to the fuel stop and added 2 litres each to the tanks. This filled mine close to the top – I guess I had more in to start than I thought – and we headed left/north in the direction of Da Nang.

We’d decided to take the “local road” up and come back via the newer highway. This was fun, though we were the slowest motor vehicles on the road for most of it. Almost every single other moped zipped past us with a quick beep of the horn. My only disappointment was not getting any pictures on or from the moped as the sights were pretty cool. Top has to be the bike that overtook us laden with two people and three baskets containing around 30 ducks who sat there as if they did this every day.

At some point we had to learn how to overtake and this we did, hanging behind and then nipping past two dumper trucks. We were starting to realise we were near the mountains but looking for the right turning when another moped levelled up with Leah to compliment her on her overtaking, and then offered to take us there. “Follow us!” so we did. It’s simple – keep heading up the local road until you get to the truck spraying water at knee-height then turn right. Although I can’t guarantee the truck will be there next time.

We parked up and got talking to our new guides, one of whom (surprise) turned out to be one of Mr Hoa’s nieces. For those not in the know, Hoa has run a guest house on nearby China Beach for 14 years and is well-known to backpackers and locals alike. Mention his name and you can guarantee that you’ll be told “oh, he is my uncle!” or similar. If this was true of everyone who said it, Hoa would have the biggest extended family outside of the Bible Belt.

Regardless, they were friendly and helpful and offered to look after our bikes in their shop(obviously, we kept the keys) while we walked around the Mountains. Now, I’ve written about these Mountains before in some details, so I’ll just refer you to that entry than repeat myself here. Needless to say, I contended with the heat far better than Leah, as she will readily admit. As a result we didn’t see every single cavern as I did last time, but she still reckoned it was worth it.

Another point of note is that I believe the price has dropped since last time, from 40,000d to 15,000d. Essentially, they’re charging foreigners the same as they charge Vietnamese. For a couple of hours’ wander, clamber and explore it’s well worth it. Lonely Planet does wax lyrical about the mountains while other publications reckon they’re crap – I’d say they’re somewhere in between, more towards the LP end of the scale. They’re certainly interesting and kids will love being able to clamber over everything. Well, I said I wouldn’t go on so there you have it.

We returned to the town and walked back to the shop where we’d left our bikes. Now for the fun bit as we did want to pick up a couple of souvenirs. Of course, we were obligated to get them from this shop. The haggle game began. Leah ended up with one piece for just over $32 while they tried to sell me a larger, similar piece for $75. I asked if they had it in a smaller size, but no – only the large one.

Hmm. Far too much to spend. No, not interested. So the price dropped. Then we “realised” that I didn’t actually have enough on me to pay 800,000d for anything anyway. And no, Leah couldn’t lend me money. Then they offered to let me pay at their other branch in Hoi An. Some now, rest later and I could take the gift with me. Nope, sorry – I decided my bank account was empty and I didn’t get paid for another week.

Then, suddenly, a smaller version appeared. Just what I’d asked about before. And the price dropped to $30/500,000d. Still too much as suddenly, we remembered that we hadn’t paid for our hotel yet. D’oh! Ah well, we couldn’t buy it. Then the price dropped to 400,000d/$23.50. More like it. Looking pained, I accepted. Of course, I don’t believe the “we make no profit from this – is a gift!” but things are definitely slow this time of year and I’d got them down a fair bit so I felt happy enough.

We boarded our bikes and, weaving wildly (me, anyway) popped along the road and over the highway to Hoa’s Place for lunch. Hoa is written about in so many places and he loves getting magazine clippings and so forth. He’s got 22 guest books going back 14 years filled with notes, stories and photos of his guests and people genuinely come back time and time again. Frankly, it’s easy to see why though I wonder for how much longer – I’ll get to that, but it’s nothing to do with Hoa himself who was as wonderful as I remembered him being from my last visit.

We dug through the old guest books trying to find my old entry, but I just couldn’t locate it. Probably as I’m not sure when I was there, exactly. Without my blog I am lost for travel history! So we enjoyed the lovely “roll your own” spring rolls, and a couple of drinks before unpacking our beach stuff. Hoa, typically, offered us towels. And to look after out bags. And a pair of sandals for me as the sand was hot. And a shower when we got back. Remember we weren’t even staying there, just popping by for lunch. This is what makes Hoa so great. He’s possibly the greatest living host.

It’s thirty seconds onto the beach from Hoa’s and we strolled down and got charged 30,000d for two deckchairs and a shade. Worth it for the full day, but we were only there for a couple of hours. I’d recommend shade if you go, though, as the skies are clear and the sun fierce. The water is warm and clean, the sand beautiful and near-white. And the beach just noticeably busier than it was two years ago.

Looking down the coastline I could see one resort that seems to be open now. Others are being constructed as I write and some are creating their own little artificial beaches. This will change the whole face of China Beach and – dreadfully – perhaps spell the end of Hoa’s and all the things that make this stretch so damn special. Sadly, that’s the cost of expansion and to be expected once the first tourists started to arrive all those years ago. If you are going to visit, do it soon. And if you stay along the beach, please stay with Hoa or one of the other small places. Soapbox away.

We splashed and chilled and read and pretended to sleep when the man with the sunglasses tried to sell us stuff. An Irish guy came over and asked if anyone wanted to play volleyball so I stepped up. Leah stayed behind to chat to a Scots group sat next to us. The volleyball was fun and our team won best two out of three with only one casualty – one of the girls came over all heat-strokey and had to go and lie down. Oh, and one of the Irish guys lost a gold bracelet. Bummer. All good fun and nice to throw myself around for half an hour on the beach!

I washed off in the warm water and we decided it was time to head homeward. Only a short day out, but certainly a good one. We towelled off, changed and said our thanks and good-bye’s to Hoa. We’d hoped to come back later on for one of his famed beach bonfires, but sadly we weren’t to be able.

As decided, we buzzed back along the highway on our petrol-powered egg whisks. Close to Hoi An a minibus overtook us, beeping away. Nothing unusual until I recognised the Irish girls I’d been playing volleyball with waving out of the rear window!

Once in town I wanted to look up CHIA – Children’s Hope In Action. Another Vietnamese charity formed by foreigners to help children out. In this case, specifically those with medical needs. They try to use volunteer staff where possible to save on costs and, as the recent past shows, I’m not averse to spending a few weeks in Vietnam to help out. We got there just as they were closing down for the evening, but I spoke briefly to John Tobin who reckons they could definitely use some IT assistance. We exchanged cards and I’m hoping to hear from one of their other staff soon. Looks like I may be back in Hoi An again before the year ends.

Back at the hotel we returned our bikes. I’d hoped to use them to go somewhere different for dinner, but one of the girls needed hers to get home! We freshened up, showered, changed and a while later left to go into town. Leah picked up her shoes on the way and seemed very happy with them. Hand-made in a day for $14 – not bad.

The town was closed off to mopeds again which made it much more pleasant to walk around and we selected a small restaurant for dinner – Cafe Phone, I think but I didn’t get a card from this one. Like Pub Street in Siem Reap or the beach front in Palolem, though, I don’t think anyone can afford to have a bad restaurant in Hoi An. If you do, it’ll die. Quickly. And true to form we had a good meal in this one, too. The fresh beer at 4000d was as close to the bia hoi I remember from Hanoi as I’ve encountered so far and the service was superb.

Afterwards we walked back to the Blue Dragon restaurant for pancakes again. Leah had overdone herself and had to leave some of hers but I managed to squish mine down. One other person I’ve not mentioned yet is a woman who we saw every day we were there, trying to sell us peanuts and ginger. What set her apart from the others were her permanent smile, sense of humour and realisation when to leave us alone. After three nights of turning down her snacks I’d already decided I’d buy something from her simply as she was so nice and polite and made us smile. I probably got overcharged for the ginger (20,000d) but I like the stuff and in my opinion she deserved the cash just for the entertainment value.

So that was it. Our short stay in Hoi An was almost at an end. Back at the hotel we packed for our early bus and watched The Rock (with the bad language removed – no fun), then crashed out.

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