Hue to Hoi An: The Top Gear Experience

Night trains were becoming more and more uncomfortable. For me, anyway. Diarmo once again slept like a baby, thank God for the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy, it got me through the journey. So we arrived in Hue and checked into a beautiful hotel, our room could have fit 8 beds inside it. They even brought tea to us, now I know how the Queen feels. And all this cost us 8 euro each. The one issue was there wasn’t a great deal to do in Hue. And it rained a lot.

So we went to wander the town and Lonely Planet led us to the Citadel, an old walled city. The book really made the Citadel appear to be something magnificent, it wasn’t really. And then the rain began. When it rains in Vietnam, it really rains, as Forest Gump had warned us. We were soaking wet within minutes, we had kind of forgotten what rain was like and we rushed back to the hotel. We looked for a pub for a pint, there wasn’t really any unfortunately.

The following day we ventured to the tombs of Vietnamese emperors through the ages. Lonely Planet told us the tombs sit on a long 15 km stretch outside the town of Hue. We got cyclos half way there and felt like some kind of royalty! We walked and walked and couldn’t find the smallest indication of a tomb. It is not the best signposted town in the world, that’s for sure. Later on we moved out of our 4 Seasons and into Hanoi Backpackers which seemed to be full of backpackers. 8 pm to 9 pm in the hostel was Happy Hour, drinks were insanely cheap and the foor nearly lifted off the place.

Diarmo and I had arrived a little late but by 8.55 pm everyone else was absolutely hammered, dancing around like lunatics. As soon as Happy Hour ended, everyone dispersed. The bar emptied. We went to a few other bars in town but there was nobody really around. It was a complete mystery to us why everyone seemed to disappear as soon as the drinks went up a little in price again. So we got an early night by our standards looking forward to a trip to the DMZ the following day.

It was a long journey up the coast and we slept most of it. Around 9.30, the tour guide started speaking to us. God bless her she had a good grasp of English but it was pretty unrecognisable. We stopped at some very interesting places though. We went to an old US army base, we stopped at a museum and we went into the tunnels many Vietnamese used to live in during the war. There were little rooms in the tunnels no more than 2×2, where whole families would live, hiding from the horrors taking place above ground. Some of them lived here for up to 10 years. The tour guide told us stories like this that brought a silence to the group. We felt such sympathy for the Vietnamese people.

We also stopped at an ethnic settlement in the hills. The houses were all on stilts, made of wood with thatch roofs. The people looked like they were living 100 years ago, the children all ran to greet us and it appeared that these people may not have much but they are happy in their simple ways. In saying that, a fair few of the houses had satellite dishes on their straw roofs! It was great to see rural Vietnam, the rolling green hills, little farms and the ethnic people of the country, the guide told us there thousands of ethnic tribes in the hills of Vietnam.

The following day we were going to follow in the footsteps of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and David Hammond. The Top Gear boys did a Vietnam special taking on the amazing driving roads of the country on scooters and we were undertaking the most spectacular and dangerous part of the experience.

We returned to the hostel in the evening and while out on the balcony having a beer, met an Aussie named Cameron. He too was making the journey to Hoi An the next day by bike. We learned that Cameron was 40 years old, had just been through a marriage break up, so decided to sell all of his possessions and leave to travel the world. That’s what I call living the dream. While we had rented bikes from the hostel to make the trip, Cameron had bought his own in Hanoi and was undertaking the whole of Vietnam on the bike.

We awoke early, eager to reach Hoi An before dark and the three of us set off. The weather wasn’t great as we left but we were just worried about being able to drive a motorbike in a country where road rules were non-existent. So we set off on our journey and getting out of Hue was tough, but once we hit the open-road, we got a great feeling of freedom.

As we meandered through small quaint villages, hundreds of little kids would shout ‘hello!’ to us over and over as if we were some kind of heroes. I felt like one anyway. It rained on and off, but at this point we didn’t even mind. A month before hand we were probably somewhere in Dublin city stuck in traffic on a cold winter’s day. Here we were, free as birds zooming through little Vietnamese coastal villages.

But then we reached what Jeremy Clarkson calls ‘one of the best driving roads in the world’. The road began to get steeper and the bends got sharper as we revved our way up the pass. The mist thickened and the rain got heavier; we didn’t really know which one was driving at us viciously in the face, a combination of both I’d say. The top of the pass is about 1200 metres above sea level and on Top Gear, the views were simply amazing; the glistening sea a kilometre below, the sun setting in the distance, the peninsulas and strands visible for miles around. We just saw mist. Never mind missing out on the awesome scenery, we could barely see each other ten metres in front of us on these dangerous bends.

Then the worst happened. Actually the worst would be one of us veering off a cliff, the second worst thing perhaps; Cameron’s bike broke down. We had to laugh, the timing was just ridiculously bad. We stood in the worst rain imaginable wondering what to do but thank God after 20 minutes he got it going again and we finished the pass. What a relief it was to escape the mist and the treacherous bends overlooking cliff edges. But what an adrenaline rush at the same time.

Unfortunately Cam’s bike broke down again and he insisted we go on. So it was through Da Nang and then we would reach our destination, Hoi An. Da Nang is the 3rd largest city in Vietnam, a million bikes, and we drove through it like pros. 3 weeks previously, we couldn’t cross a road in Vietnam, now we could drive them. The sun came out in late afternoon and we drove past long sandy beaches with our jackets off. I think we were a bit disappointed getting to Hoi An in the end. But Hoi An was not in the least bit disappointing, no it is a beautiful little town.

We checked into our lovely hotel and headed out to explore. On our way down the street we saw Laura and the girls from Halong heading off to Nha Trang on the bus. Went over for a chat but then they had to leave. I had grown pretty attached to Laura in Halong Bay. Just wasn’t meant to be I guess, Diarmo was happy not to lose his wing man. But we found a really nice restaurant for dinner with two pool tables. Yes, two. And pool tables in Vietnam don’t take coins. They’re just complimentary.

This would become our local in Hoi An. After a few there, we ventured to another place which would become our second local, they made the best chicken burgers in the whole world. There we met a very happy Cameron who had made it to Hoi An and he dragged us to what seemed to be the happening bars in Hoi An, ‘Why Not’ and ‘King Kong bar’. ‘King Kong Bar’ was like a shed. They did have a pool table and watered down free shots though. The DJ area was an amp connected to a PC with Windows 95.

The pool table was definitely the best part of this place. So I noticed a girl playing who was literally destroying opponents left, right and centre. I asked for a game and she seemed so cocky I was going to love beating her. I didn’t, I lost. So then we ventured to ‘Why Not’. Even worse than the previous place, rather than a shed with a pool table, it was a hut with a pool table.

The following day we both bought books about the Vietnam war, our interest grew rapidly after seeing and hearing quite a bit on our DMZ tour. We sat and read and had some Vietnamese coffee, which is very unique, very powerful and very tasty. The main attraction of Hoi An is shopping; suit shopping that is. The streets are literally lined with tailors. Our friends Andy and Byron from Halong Bay arrived in Hoi An that afternoon and the 4 of us began shopping. We decided to simply browse on our first afternoon, browsing turned into indulging.

We went to the biggest and most reputable tailor in town, Yaly to begin our shopping. The Top Gear guys had gotten their own suits their and we continued to follow in their footsteps. Yaly is quite a special place. When you enter the store, a small Vietnamese lady dressed in a red and yellow gown will come up to you and offer to basically be your personal shopper. Within a couple of hours, we all had suit orders completed. The excitement of it was just brilliant, picking colours and materials and of course, it was incredibly cheap.

The majority of the next 3 days was spent shopping. We each returned to our personal shoppers, I don’t think they were officially ours but we grew attached to them, By even hugged his saying goodbye. By the 3rd day we had gotten very experimental. Byron got tailored shoes, a white suit and a crazy waistcoat fitting of the 1920s. I asked my personal shopper if they could make me a blue and white striped shirt with white collars and cuffs, she nodded and smiled as if anything was possible. The boys each ordered one too!

We visited quite a few tailors around Hoi An, for cheaper prices and to pick up ties and cuff links and such. One our final evening I even got one lady to measure and make me a shirt in an hour before our bus was to leave and she of course got it done. Our Penny’s suits were a distant memory now, we looked dam good.

Other than shopping, Hoi An is a really nice town to wander and chill in. We took a boat tour out on the river, we also picked up Christmas presents to send home to the families in the many little shops and stalls that line the narrow streets. The 4 of us had some great nights there in our 2 favourite bars, although when we took Andy and By to ‘King Kong’ and ‘Why Not’, they looked appalled by their surroundings.

We were actually annoyed we didn’t have more time in this charming little town, but Nha Trang awaited us further south and Andy and Byron were coming with us. And this time there would be no night train, it was time to switch to the bus. And who would have thought we would end up wishing we were on a train.


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