Getting to Hoi An and An Bang Beach went like clockwork; got back to Hanoi from Bai Tu Long earlier than expected, a quick taxi to the airport where we had some time to kill – the flight left on time arriving at Da Nang airport at 21:00. Our taxi driver got a little lost heading to our accommodation, can’t blame him as it is tucked away on the outskirts of Hoi An, right by the coast (about 6km from Hoi An Ancient Town) – our host (Micha) was waiting for us and were checked int our rooms in 2 minutes.
Julie had found the accommodation, which goes by two names The Happy Bird B&B &/or The Hippie House; it has two names as they are separate types of accommodation but owned and run by the same couple…more about them later. We must have arrived near or just after 22:00 leaving not much time to for anything except have an early night, the accommodation I must admit was a very pleasant surprise; slightly rustic with an elegant personalised flare and spotless. A real little gem hidden away off the main road, well I call it a main road, more like a tiny village road you would find in the middle of nowhere, in the area of An Bang Beach. No, I’m not paid to rave about the accommodation nor do the owners even know that I’m writing about them – if I ever go back to Vietnam and remotely within the area I would go back to visit them. Not mentioning the cool area and surroundings, they have hit the perfect balance of homely feel, great price accommodation, excellent food and all-round great friendly hosts.
An Bang Beach
An Bang Beach; if it’s a quiet, homely and friendly environment you are looking for then this location should be high on your list if you are visiting Hoi An. Around the corner from Hoi An Ancient Town and literally 2 minutes’ walk to the beach, I had only planned on staying for 3 days….I stayed there for 8. A large part of me staying there for that duration of time was because of The Happy Bird B&B and the owners Micha (Michael) and Kim (both from German, Kim’s parents were from Vietnam). Micha and Kim are fantastic hosts and bent over backwards to accommodate me every time I asked “can I say longer please!” – Kim is a whizz in the kitchen, I can honestly say she makes fantastic food, the best breakfast I’d had in many months!
Unlike me to digress, back to An Bang Beach. There isn’t much in or around An Bang Beach but there is enough. Here the pace of life is relaxing, a few kilometers South along the coast it is more commercial with hotels and resorts but here, oh no, this place turns the speedometer of life whey down! I can understand why Kim & Micha decided to call their first accommodation Hippie House; a decorative collaboration from visitors given free reign to add their personal touch to what has now become Kim & Micha’s home. That seems to have come from the environment around them, tucked away from the main tourist attraction of the area, Hoi An Ancient Town, this area is a secluded getaway. For some reason I imagined this is what a lot of Thailand would have been like 20 years ago….I hope it stays like this for many years to come. That’s not to say there is nothing to do or see in An Bang Beach area, with the sea on your doorstep you can relax to the sound of gentle waves breaking against the shore, take a stroll down the “High Street” and eat delicious food whilst been treated like a local. An odd thing I found was how many massage parlours there were, I’m not referring to “dodgy” places either ?! An Ban was and to some degree still is a fishing village, here time has decidedly not caught up with the times, not much has changed over the years, yes, they have more tourists now but it is far from commercialised. The round bamboo fishing boats (I used the word boat very loosely) scatter the beaches during day, most fishing happening in the evening when you can see faint red lights bobbing in the water. Personally, I thought it was the perfect place as a base and head out from there, would I want to stay in central Hoi An, no not really.
I was sceptical at first about hiring a bicycle, it turned out to be a brilliant idea. Hiring a bicycle in some places I’ve been to is a death wish, here in Hoi An there may be the same amount of cars vs. bicycles, it’s very safe and for me the perfect way to explore, see the town and surrounding areas at a pace fitting to the vibe. For my entire time in Hoi An except for one day when I went to My Son, I/we spent our time to and fro riding from An Bang Beach (specifically Happy Bird B&B) , Hoi An and any route or path we saw on the way. For me, riding around on a bicycle forced me to slow the pace of life right down, it gives a very different perspective and the freedom to stop and go whenever we felt like it. Riding through the farmlands with green rice-fields surrounding the town, palm trees jotted along the paths, the faint sound of water trickling through the jigsaw of rice paddies and the occasional frog croaking – I often forgot just how close we were to the vibrant, hustle and as I’ll get into my next blog post, polluted and dirty town centre.
Like I’ve already mentioned An Bang is an old fishing village, fast becoming an alternative location to stay in when visiting the area, and why not with quiet (most places) beaches, more locals and less commercial vibe, I’d say a slight hippie/bohemian atmosphere – with the added bonus of being around the corner from Hoi An Ancient Town, the space between filled with rice paddies, other tiny villages and a labyrinth or roads and pathways you can explore on bicycle or foot. There are no “no-go” areas, in fact the more off the beaten track we went the friendlier the people became, more curious too; most people tend to stick to the tourist areas so locals are surprised and I’d go so far as to say happy to see visitors. If I counted how many times strangers said hello I’d have needed a calculator to keep track. Vietnamese people (away from touristy areas) must be the some of the happiest and friendliest people I have every come across.
Uh, a lot of waffle written with not much said. Considering the majority of my time in An Bang and Hoi An consisted of cycling around &/or going to Hoi An Ancient Town I’ll going to try to break this blog post into these two categories. Yes, I know I’ve already said a bit about An Bang…there’s more.
There’s a lot of water in the area, can’t think of any place I went to in Vietnam where there wasn’t, the land between An Bang and Hoi Han is dotted with small holdings amongst residential areas and rice paddies. Like a jigsaw puzzle trying to fill any piece of land in between suburbia, rice paddies fill any void with a carpet of plush green. These fields can stretch far and wide as they creep into every nook and cranny broken by punctuation’s of roads, houses, holding lakes and dusty bumpy pathways weaving through this green sea like a snakes and ladders board.
It’s an odd landscape, not just An Bang but the how area around Hoi An, parts are tranquil with the feeling of being secluded hundreds of kilometers from human habitation, yet quite the opposite. Most parts of Vietnam I saw was very much the same, farmland intertwined with cities, towns and residential areas, very little land left to its natural state (at least from the areas I visited, but that’s certainly not the case everywhere, my trip to My Son a perfect example).
In most part the people I met and encountered live a simple life, they may have a flat screen TV and mobile/cell phone I just couldn’t help but feel their life is tough. You wouldn’t think so if their attitude is anything to go by, mostly smiling and happy to have visitors in their country – in the more touristy areas they can come across as curt. There are two reasons for this change in attitude in my opinion, firstly, dealing it pesky tourist constantly wanting to bargain with them must become tiring and some tourists can be downright stupid, irritating, ignorant and rude. Secondly, Vietnamese people can be quite direct, not in a rude way, similar to that of how people stereotype German &/or Scandinavians (personally I like the directness of Germans and Scandinavians).
Yes, there are many places I’ve encountered people calling out “hello” when passing by, here it is just more frequent and an authentic tone to them too. At times I felt quite guilty riding through these villages on the outskirts of An Bang and Hoi An; here we were taking in the “sites” and environment, but this is their life, these conditions that they live in is their life. Me taking pictures as if at a show is a snapshot of what they do or how they live every day. There were many times I went off into my own world, riding on autopilot and hoping that what I see, experience and emotions I felt will be a lesson I take forward with my life. For people who have so little material things in life, they sure seem happier than me, not a bad lesson to learn.
One arbitrary observation I noticed about the houses around An Bang and surrounding area is they almost all follow the same design; very boxy, the bottom floor with a little garden/courtyard (normally very tidy) leading to double doors into the family/tv room. A big TV with the rest of the room sparsely furnished (the dimensions normally quite small, 4/5m by 3-4m) with one or two couches at most – 50s/60s style wooden couches. Kitchen behind the lounge (those that have a kitchen – some cook outside outback), bedroom/s and bathroom upstairs.
On one of our rides just South East of Hoi An off the beaten track not a tourist in site for hours, we rode through the twists and turns of alleyways through another village. Not too different visually from many of the other places, but here I got the sense the inhabitants seldom to never see any of the tourists; this was where the locals live, there are no trinkets to bye or touristy shops. I got the feeling that we were the “site” to see as everyone pleasantly smiled as we rode by, just like before many saying hello. Here, people still live from the river and they eat I think just about anything they catch. They grow their own vegetables which they sell in front of their houses or in little markets of 3-4 stores. The river has been their lifeline for hundreds of years and still is, now the population is hundredfold and with that comes pollution…there is no way I would swim in the river. At one of the larger markets a kilometre or two from the village in the space of 100m we must have easily seen 10 dead floating rats…not to mention the muck washed up onto the shoreline…the pungent smell made me feel queasy.
Keeping on the theme of how happy and welcoming the people are, I lost count of how many times we stopped to speak to people to ask them anything from directions to what they were selling. Without hesitation they would offer us a taste, sometimes that was nice others not! On one occasion we had what was similar to cockles, I think, very salty small shellfish. Communication throughout Vietnam can be a challenge, not for lack of trying on both sides it’s just their language is so different from Latin languages. These “cockles” are soaked in very salty water for some time (we couldn’t figure out just how long), then rinsed and eaten just like that. Who knows how many you would need to eat to fill your belly, maybe they don’t consider them a meal and instead just a snack, like popcorn, who knows!
One of the most poignant experiences I had in Vietnam, actually throughout my time travelling, happened on An Bang beach by Happy House. We had spent the day riding about, after dinner we decided to take it easy that evening and have a glass of wine on the beach (Julie and I, obviously not Mila, she would have fruit juice). We hadn’t even found a place to sit down when we spotter a group of 4 local men, I’d say early 30’s, digging around on the beach with spades and torches. Clearly, they were trying to catch something, one of them was carrying a large bucket and they were digging far to deep for just the enjoyment of it. To cut a long story short, they were catching crabs in a way I have never heard of or seen before.
- Find a fresh clean hole dug by a crab that doesn’t seem too deep
- Take the spade and dig quickly until the hole disappears but you can still see the outline of the hole
- Start digging with your hand until you find a chamber where you will hopefully find the crab and grab it…trying not to be caught by one or both of its pincers
- If you’ve taken too long to dig then they crab may have started to dig another tunnel from the chamber – keep following the hole until you find the crab, or your arm is too short to go any further
We followed the group for the best part of an hour striking up a conversation along the way. They seemed very happy that we were paying such interested in what they were doing and happy for us to participate too…we were not successful in catching any. Conversation was challenging to say the least, made more so because they spoke very fast and thought their English was good, most of the time I had no idea what they were saying. It really made no difference and after both sides repeated themselves many times we all just laughed.
They invited us to join them for dinner later that evening after they had caught enough crabs, honestly, I was a little sceptical; why would strangers invite us to dinner, was it some ploy? We headed further up the beach to have our wine, 30 minutes later they returned and were persistent we join them…this made me more sceptical. Upon arriving at their little restaurant just 50m off the beach, now long past opening hours, they turned on the lights arranged seating for us as they took the circa. 20 crabs to be cooked. My scepticism was that they may now try to totally overcharge us for the food or something along those lines. Well, once the food was ready they whole family came out, pregnant sister and brother-in-law, brother, friend, wife (of the main person we spoke to – so pissed off I cannot remember his name) etc. etc. about 8 of them and the three of us. The crabs fried whole in a chilli sauce served in a soup, not sure what type of soup – bloody crunchy with the shells and all but absolutely delicious.
Here we were, joining their family dinner, they don’t have much, but we took pride and place at the table and were treated like honorary guests. Communication was “interesting”, it really didn’t matter, I still had a niggling feeling at the back of my mind as the evening went on, hmmmm this seems to good, too unlikely to be without an agenda. Two or more hours must have passed, we had eaten and had a long funny convoluted conversation long after the plates had been cleared, time to leave. We had explained that we were just out for a walk on the beach and didn’t have money with us, I didn’t even have my wallet with me, they were not fussed at all. Julie had a little money with her 200 000 Vietnamese Dong, about £6. She gave it all to them after many times of them refusing, objecting that if we were to give them anything 200 000 was far too much, we insisted.
We left hugging and shaking hands, leaving down the little path back to the beach I had a sinking feeling of guilt. I enjoyed the evening, food and company, but that little niggling feeling I had through most of the evening couldn’t have been further from the truth. They really weren’t interested in the money, I wouldn’t say they were poverty stricken (they have a little restaurant (the Red Apple Restaurant) and homestay – the whole family works there) compared to many people we had seen but they certainly were not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, maybe they would be categorised as lower middle class at a push (grrrrr even using those terms makes me cringe)! We showed a genuine curiosity and interest in what they were doing, they in turn opened their door to their house, introduced us to the family and fed us like we were long lost friends. I’ve not encountered hospitality like this before, language barriers meant nothing, we discussed everything for tourism, politics, weather and life in general. If you are ever in the area go have a snack at the Red Apple, please.
Days had passed, I pondered my perceptions of people and the world, recounted the events of the evening many times over too, I still think about it regularly (now 4 months later). I’ve not come to any epiphany, it has however given me some humility of thought and now I question my perceptions of people to much greater extent than I possibly would have in the past. Vietnam had been an odd journey of experiences to date, filled with people so different to what I have been accustomed to in my life. Through all the countries I had been to so far I’ve experienced a true undercurrent of humanity, sometimes from the smallest gestures – these are the stories I have learnt from the most and will last in me till the end.
Uh, I’d say that about covers it for An Bang. Next post will be on Hoi An Ancient Town, vibrant town filled with culture mixes from China, Japan, France and of course Vietnam. I do hope this post was at least a little more interesting than my last (Ha Long Bay) – enjoy and thank you for reading.