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Thursday, April 4, 2013

March 31 – April 3, 2013 - Hoi An, Vietnam

As we were heading to the airport I realized that today is Easter. It is very strange spending Easter in a communist country. There's no sign of Christ (or the holiday) at all although I didn't expect any, yet we think there must be Christians here somewhere. We didn't see a bunny or an egg to even signify the commercial aspect. I can't imagine living in a world where Christianity has been obliterated. It was disorienting with no buildup or advertising to realize Easter had slipped in and out so inconspicuously.

Our flight experience was a pleasant surprise. Air Vietnam does a very nice job, from which United Airlines could use some tips! The service was courteous and very efficient, and although we had no seat choice and I was placed in a middle seat, I didn't mind at all because mine was extra large. In fact all of the middle seats were much wider in order to compensate for the two outside seats having the extra side room.  On arrival in Da Nang, we went through the ritual of finding a taxi to drive us to our hotel in Hoi An. We had a serious language barrier here, and in spite of giving him a copy of our booking, which included a map and the phone #, he drove us all over God's half acre before Frank spotted a sign off the main road that eventually led us to the hotel. It was well after dark and yet in spite of the late hour, the restaurant stayed open just for us.

In a nutshell; we loved Hoi An and wished we had planned to spend much more time here The highlights…
The Hoi An Chic hotel was the perfect luxury getaway set just outside of the town amidst the farmland and rice fields. We booked the grand chic suite, an absolutely fabulous accommodation with a massive luxury bathroom and very large balcony where we enjoyed lounging on the comfy sofa and hanging lounge chair. We were provided canvas shopping bags, hats, lovely slippers and robes, although Frank couldn't get his toes into the slippers, nor get his robe even halfway around him. We got a kick out of realizing that their mindset is not on large Americans. The little spa was lovely and so inexpensive that we used it every day. The hotel had a sister spa that would provide any service that couldn't be provided onsite. The restaurant's food was absolute gourmet and out of this world.
Herb wrapped prawns with "5-s's" dipping sauce
We had a difficult time not staying there for every meal but we did want to enjoy and experience Hoi An. I cannot say enough about this exquisite boutique resort and did in fact leave a glowing review on Trip Advisor. The hotel had a small fleet of US military jeeps that they used to shuttle guests into town on a daily schedule, otherwise we had the option of using the complimentary bicycles that were on hand.

controls beside me in the back seat
We chose both depending on our agenda for the day.
riding from town to hotel through farmland

The Morning Glory restaurant and cooking school owned by Ms. Vy were highly recommended to us by friends, and were at the top of our list.  We did have a sublime meal at the restaurant on our second night.  Every place you eat in Hoi An, however, is said to be just as sublime. We never had a less than splendid meal here.

Cooking school began very early in the morning with a trip to the local fresh market. We were taken through the market by Ms. Vy's own head shopper, who pointed out various fresh meats, seafoods, herbs, seasonings, fruits and vegetables and were given tastings by many of the vendors. Our guide pointed out to us which ingredients we would be using in School and how to prepare them. What makes Hoi An unique in the food arena are the products that are locally made and available only in Hoi An. For instance there is a delicious special noodle called the Hoi An noodle that is best when used fresh. 
so many wonderful fresh noodles!

one of the strange things we tasted
After the trip to the market, our class was taken to the school where we were shown how certain Vietnamese staple foods are made and again were given samples to taste. We learned the secret of the 5 S's that are the primary factors in Vietnamese cooking: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Spicy, Savory. We had a great time making banana blossom salad, Hoi An pancakes, wedding soup, spring rolls and more. Following our class we were led into the dining room where we got to eat our own creations for lunch. It was difficult not to snarf it all down as we prepared it!
Ms. Vy

our shared cooking station
After school, we roamed the beautiful village and took in the sights of the old town, the waterfront and the beautiful shops,
paper lanters
 coming to an interesting street where a lady beckoned us to her tiny shop, offering facial threading for $1.  I happily sat down to have her remove my middle-age, upper lip hair that I seem to have developed in recent years. She was brilliant and so quick! She then turned her attention on Frank, who was shuffling around in the background looking very uncomfortable, motioning for him to sit down. He tried backing away but I convinced him to get his eyebrows trimmed up.
She was thrilled, and while she had him in her clutches she next turned to his nose and ears. As he winced and teared-up he shot me a look that needed no words. I smiled back knowing that he would be pleased with the end result. When handed the mirror he actually sat up a bit straighter and smiled. She was so pleased that she had made him happy. Because she had done a little extra work on him, she charged him $2. We gave her $10, just to see her big smile spread even wider, as she bowed and thanked us over and over.

Hoi An is also known for tailor-made clothing and shoes. We didn't have shoes made but I did order some hiking pants with zip off legs that convert to shorts, and several pair of shorts. My mistake was in not knowing how to choose the shop. There are dozens upon dozens of storefronts offering tailoring. I chose mine by what I saw on display at the front of the shop. Little did I know the storefront only took measurements and then sent them out to someone else, somewhere else to be made. It never occurred to me to ask if they were actually made onsite, nor to refuse to pay for them up front before I received the finished product. This caused me no small amount of grief because all 4 garments were sent back and forth countless times, and I had to keep coming back for re-fitting appointments over the course of our 3 days there. We were both pretty upset that our precious time here was being taken up by this. They laughed when Frank told me to request a refund and to just cancel the order. At the end of the ordeal, I told the shop owner on our final evening that we were leaving Hoi An at 6 AM the next morning, and I would really appreciate having my garments before we left. She assured me they would be delivered to me at the hotel prior to our departure. We went to bed thinking we'd seen the last of that shop, our money and the clothes. On checkout at 6 AM the next morning I was presented a bag from the concierge, explaining it had just arrived from the shop. By the hair of my chinny chin chin! I didn't have time to try them on, so I put them in the suitcase with a prayer on my lips.

After hearing that the journey between Hoi An to Hue was very pleasant and scenic we had arranged a driver to take us instead of flying. It was by far the most expensive option but one that we treasured. This would bring our Vietnam experience thus far to trains, planes and automobiles.

The drive was all that we had been promised, passing through lush countryside, up into the mountains and over a pass that revealed terrific panoramas.

Passing fishing villages, we stopped for lunch at a rickety looking structure out over the water that proved to serve excellent fresh fish.

 Continuing our journey, we arrived at our hotel in Hue at dusk, and got checked in just in time to watch a beautiful sunset from the roof bar.

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