While Matt was doing some maintenance work on the bikes that afternoon, he noticed a broken spoke on his rear wheel. This alone would not have been a big deal, but it was on the drive train side and we lacked the tools needed to remove the cassette. So did every bike/motorbike shop in town. He even tried some repair hack tutorials on YouTube to no avail. It seemed like a bad idea to head in to the middle of nowhere with a known mechanical issue, so we sadly crammed all of that food into our bags and rode to the coast instead. We were optimistic we could fix the problem in Dong Hoi. It was actually an ideal situation as we would get to check out an up-and-coming spot for tourism in its early stages, have a mini-beach vacation, then return to Phong Nha and carry on with the plan.
That optimism faded fast when the only promising bike shop in the city did not have the necessary tools to remove a cassette even though they sold new cassettes in their store. Nonetheless, we settled in to a new hostel called Beachside Backpackers where the awesome staff shuttled Matt around on the back of a motorbike with his wheel in hand to any and all bike and motorbike repair places. No luck. It seemed we would have to save the West Ho Chi Minh Highway for “another time” and continue down the coast.
The day we left Dong Hoi, we rode through a small desert on an empty road running parallel to the coast line and arrived at the Vinh Moc Tunnels shortly before they closed. We followed a local guide through the complex of tunnels dug for protection from the heavy bombing of the Demilitarized Zone during the American-Vietnam War. We learned about the ingenuity of designing the tunnels to evade detection while making them viable for long term occupancy. As we peered into alcoves that served as the living space for an entire family, it seemed surreal that this was a reality for Vietnamese just forty years before. And they were luckier than most.
From Vinh Moc, we continued south through rural areas abundant with two things: fields of family tombs and fields of sand. Apparently, many of the elaborate tombs are those of “Viet Kieu,” or Overseas Vietnamese, who wished to be buried in their homeland. As for the fields of sand, it seemed the only viable crop was cassava, which makes sense given its drought tolerance and ability to grow in nutrient-poor soil.
Reaching the next major city of Hue, Matt was able to find the long sought after tools to take off the cassette. After replacing the spoke, he was whisked away on the back of a motorbike to the wheel-truing specialist with a homemade truing machine. Quite ironically, by the time he got it fixed, we had cycled about the same distance as if we had stuck to our desired inland route. The main difference was that this was less remote should one broken spoke have led to more.
With the rest of our time in Hue, we walked around the old citadel, explored an extensive market, visited one of several Buddhist pagodas, and even an out-of-the-way elephant v. tiger fighting arena, thankfully now historical.
After Hue, we overnighted in an odd beach resort town popular with Vietnamese before tackling the famous Hoi Van pass topographically delineating the north and central regions of Vietnam. Climbing the pass felt pretty gradual after some of the hills inland and the view at the top was certainly worth it. However, we didn’t linger long since the obnoxious vendors wouldn’t leave us alone. We coasted down the other side and in to Da Nang. We didn’t see much of the city since we opted to cycle along a coastline that was obscured by major development, mostly under construction. It seems that Da Nang has plans to become the next big thing in resort world.
We arrived in Hoi An that evening, a destination we were both excited about and wary of given its recent surge in popularity. We had heard it was amazing and we had also heard it was way too touristy. The family running the Vesper Homestay was setting up an elaborate altar in the doorway the next morning as we were heading out to explore the town. Our curiosity was met with brief replies, but we pieced together the story. This was an offering to their ancestors to show gratitude for their ability to have recently purchased the business from the previous family. They would be having a house warming party in the afternoon and we could come, but the invitation sounded more obligatory than genuine.
While we were returning to out-of-town hotel that night, we realized we were on the wrong road and turned around. “Thank goodness!” I thought because there was some really bad karaoke going on. Once on the correct road, the karaoke got louder and louder, and loudest when we reached our place due to the unavoidable fact that it was at our place! The courtyard was literally trashed with empty beer bottles and wads of used napkins. There were still a few tables of partiers in the lobby-like living room. Our host family who was so nonchalant about us that morning was then quite jovial and outgoing, insisting that we take a seat with them for food and drink. Well, it would have been nice to know we were so welcome before we ate dinner in town… By the time we came downstairs the next morning, all evidence of the rager had been erased except for a stack of twelve empty cases of Tiger beer bottles. The best part was that the family had promptly returned to their awkwardly non-social MO!
We spent the day at a lovely beach just a couple of miles from Hoi An, perhaps not the most neutral place to ponder our strategy moving forward after having a wrench thrown in our plan. We had just learned from Hoi An’s top visa specialist, Mr. Hung, that renewing my visa for another month was going to be an expensive investment in money and time, $115 and 10 days to be exact. Allegedly, this was because of an unfortunate combination of having gotten it issued in Kunming, crossing the border at Lao Cai, flying in to Hanoi, and then renewing it there. Despite the fact that we were still in the same country, there are ridiculous laws governing visas being renewed in different regions of the country than they were issued from. So it would take a while to push my visa through the system via bribes to officials in Saigon, certainly a lot longer than we needed to spend in Hoi An.
Our other option was to ride to the nearest border with Cambodia. We would have to rush out of Hoi An and skip the rest of Vietnam, or pay for new pricey visas if we wished to return. In the end, the visa extension option won the debate with the justification that I could really use the time for writing projects, including catching up on our perpetually behind-the-times blog. We turned in my passport and moved to a more comfortable homestay since we were settling in for the long haul, or at least the longest we had stayed in one place continuously since arriving in Beijing over a year ago. So it’s particularly sad that within a few days, we were ready to be done with Hoi An.
Sure, it was quaint with all of the lanterns strung across the streets in Old Town and the decorative lights along the river at night. It was certainly more peaceful and bicycle-friendly with a fraction of the traffic and honking of elsewhere in Vietnam. But it was so obvious that the recent surge in mass tourism has created a dynamic quite frustrating for us as budget-obsessed bicycle travelers. While it is a fairly common practice for Vietnamese to try to charge tourists a higher price all over the country, usually making it clear you know the real rate is enough to get it, or pretty close to it. In Hoi An, there was a pervasive attitude that it was their right to charge tourists more than locals. They were actually offended when we requested to pay the real price. We could not even sit at a tiny plastic table on a tiny plastic chair to eat food cooked in makeshift kitchen on the sidewalk without paying more. We know, we watched very carefully when the Vietnamese paid. Bargaining is a part of travel, no doubt, but it became draining to do it for every little transaction. We try to shop in small locally-owned shops as a principle of responsible travel, but in Hoi An we were quoted more than double the price we had paid elsewhere for the same items. We actually sought out a chain mini-mart simply because it had price tags and a computerized check out system! Only in Hoi An…
Besides the overt “hello, buy something”, we got tired of the fake-friendly interactions where someone would strike up get-to-know-you conversation with a clear agenda of promoting their tour, tailor shop, hotel, or whatever place would give them a commission for getting us in the door. These folks were forward enough to sit down at our table without our invitation while we were eating previously mentioned street food at a higher price.
In December 2014, Travelfish.org wrote about a sleepy fishing village where "a Western face is still very much a novelty." We thought a ride out to Cam Tanh would make a nice change of pace from the money-grubbing vibe in Hoi An. Besides, it mentioned that residents would be happy to let you try paddling a coracle if you like, and that sounded pretty cool. Before we even reached the village proper, a woman on a motorbike was already recruiting us to come to her coracle tour business and tried to lead us all the way there. Once in the village, we could not pause for a photo without hearing the next “coracle experience” sales pitch from yet another operator. A simple, polite “no thank you” had no effect on deterring anyone, as we had since lost any interest simply from the volume of opportunities being persistently pushed on us. It’s like the tragedy of the commons is for real or something. Except there were plenty of tourists bobbing around in orange life vests and conical hats to suggest otherwise. I guess that Travelfish article needs to be updated less than a year after publishing. Hoi An is simply changing that fast.
And then there were the flyer people…oh, wait…my husband was one of them. We relied on the saying “if you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em” to justify Matt joining a scrum of obnoxious bar flyer-hander-outers who collectively annoyed the crap out of every tourist in the Old Town each night. He made the big bucks of around $13 for a four-hour night, but perhaps the more valuable outcome was the rise in my productivity level without his constant company! While he didn’t exactly love harassing strangers to go to an unoriginal struggling bar, he did gain some interesting insights from being on the other side of the tourism scene. Plus, it made for great people watching and meeting some real characters.
Mr. Hung had worked his magic and my passport was returned with the all-important extension right on time. To add insult to injury, the tiny stamp granting me another 30 days was marked $10! If only it were that simple. With our Hoi An layover soon coming to an end, we became better at appreciating the positive aspects of our stay. We took the time to chat with the adorable mother and daughter team running the Ly Phuc Homestay and we actually got around to sitting out on the balcony of our room for a sunset happy hour. We ate a last meal at our regular spot of the central market food stalls where the dishes were always delicious with a fair advertised price. We didn’t even mind that every vendor hounded us upon setting food inside. Maybe we even kind of liked it.