Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Hoi An - A Huge Disappointment

We hated Hoi An.  This is a controversial view as it is cited by many as their favourite city in Vietnam.  It is a World Heritage Site and much of the old port and town has been preserved.  There is no doubt that it is a very pretty old harbour town with the added bonus of nearby beaches to enjoy in the warmer weather but despite all this we hated almost every minute we there there.  It embodied everything negative we had heard about Vietnam and after Hoi An we were ready to leg it to Cambodia.

Our visit to this incredibly popular destination got off to an inauspicious start which unfortunately was a taste of things to come.    Our motorbike taxis took us to the wrong hotel (a common ruse) but we were dropped off quite close to the hotel we had booked online so we didn’t have to walk very far. 

Temples at My Son
Then we had the battle with the hotel.  We had booked a room with a balcony for a little extra, on the basis that if the room is comfortable, you are more likely to spend some time there and less time in the bar, thereby reducing overall spending (and liver torture).  We enjoy spending a few hours chilling out after marching around all day, but you need to have somewhere comfortable to do it.  We had booked a room with a balcony and view at the An Hoi Hotel for a few extras dollars a night.

Upon arrival, we were rather hurriedly shown to our room and the first thing we noted was that we did indeed have a room with a balcony but, as you can see from the picture, it did not deliver the promised view.  The wall you can see was about 10 inches from the edge of the balcony, and the second picture is the view you get if you lean over said balcony (thereby banging your head on the wall opposite), and peer upwards.  We couldn’t even see whether it was raining or not.  Granted, we had an excellent view of the air conditioning units, but that wasn’t what we had paid extra for.

Balcony... check!  
Whilst we could see the funny side (travelling is littered with experiences like this) and we did laugh, Paul was actually frothing so we agreed we would stay one night and check out the next day.  On our way out for a wander, we spoke to reception and expressed our dissatisfaction.  No voices were raised during the ensuing discussion when the manager kept trying to tell us that this was the only room available (another common ruse) to which our response was that we understood this but we were not happy, it wasn't the room we had booked, we and would be checking out the following day.  No discount was offered and neither was an apology.  However, we were persuaded to give them until 11am the following morning when they promised a room with a balcony (and view) would be available.  We made it clear that if they could not deliver the goods we would be checking out.

Lo and behold, the following morning after breakfast we went to reception to discover that they could only provide a room with a window (for the same price) so we told them that, as advised the previous day we would be checking out. They then insisted we pay for 2 nights because we were changing our booking with less than 24 hours’ notice and we had another minor battle on our hands..

We calmly but firmly explained that notice had been provided the previous day.  Eventually, they begrudgingly agreed that we should only pay for the one night. We settled up and left.

This whole episode from start to finish smacked of deceit and throughout they were rude, belligerent, and unlike our previous experiences with booking “errors” in Vietnam they did not even have the grace to apologise.  We expect a bit of trying on (it happened in Hanoi but they were incredibly gracious about it when we said we didn’t want to stay in a shoebox over Christmas) but we expect a little courtesy too.

The relatively quiet streets of Hoi An
So we found another hotel room, a little more expensive but absolutely massive (if a little overdone with the Vietnamese tiling) and it had a huge balcony to boot.  The perfect place to relax between a day’s marching about and the evening excursion.

We spent most of our time exploring the old town and the riverside.  We soon discovered that as you walk the streets of Hoi An you are constantly hounded by people trying to sell you something, whether it is a river boat trip, a cyclo trip, made to measure clothes, fruit, souvenirs; anything really.  We found we couldn’t walk 5 metres without being hassled by someone outside a shop or café or restaurant, someone at a street stall, or somebody randomly passing on a scooter slowing down to ask you where you are from etc, leading to the inevitable sales pitch and then when you tell them politely, with a smile, that you don’t want any clothes made by their father/mother/aunt/uncle, a cloud passes over their face, they scowl at you rather unpleasantly, and move onto the next tourist. 

We don’t like to be rude and always say “no thank you” with a smile, but watching other tourists it seemed that ignoring the hawkers was the only way to deal with them. 

The simple fact is we don’t buy souvenirs because we have no room in our backpacks, but we always try to be friendly and polite.  In Hoi An, it seems every tourist is seen in terms of dollar signs and if you are not a prospective customer (victim) you are not worth the time of day.  I lost count of the looks of contempt we received.  The people working in the tourist industry, which is basically the whole of Hoi An, appear so jaded by the whole tourism thing, and it’s impossible to engage when you become so wary.

We are fully aware that as westerners we are probably relatively rich compared to the average Vietnamese, but we also doubt that many of the people we were dealing with throughout the centre of Hoi An were your average Vietnamese.

Another souvenir shop
On An Hoi peninsular (across the river from the Japanese Covered Bridge where our original hotel was) there were a few cafés and restaurants.  We had stopped at one on the first day for lunch and, as usual, Paul left a tip (relatively unusual in Vietnam but we like to leave something).  We returned a couple of days later, had 2 coffees and 2 beers and were overcharged by 50% (we hadn’t been seen to check the menu).  This is yet another common ruse in Vietnam, and one which we general avoid by ensuring we know the prices first but as we had been to this café before and therefore already knew the prices (and had left a tip) we kind of assumed they woudn’t try to rip us off.  We were wrong.  This happened almost everywhere we went in Hoi An but we had rarely encountered it before in other places.

On our second visit we were also approached by one of the waitresses who asked for foreign money "for her son who collects it".  We explained that we had no English money because we were travelling to Australia but Paul kindly handed over a couple of Mongolian and Chinese notes that were not worth very much (that we were keeping as souvenirs).  She looked at these with disgust before flouncing off. 

It was following our experience at this establishment that Paul uttered the immortal words under his breath as we left "Thanks for nothing!  I hope your next shit's a hedgehog!".  This quickly became a catchphrase in future similar situations and tickled me no end so it always looked like I found it hilarious we were being conned!

Temple ruins at My Son
We were increasingly becoming suspicious of everyone we encountered the longer we stayed in Hoi An and we hated feeling like that.  We were equally dismayed by the dishonesty and disingenuousness we were experiencing at almost every turn.   It really isn’t the amount involved but we were finding that unless we kept our wits about us the whole time, it seemed everyone was trying to rip us off.  While this is probably incredibly unfair and it is possible we were simply very unlucky, it is hard to accept this given all our experiences during our 4 day stay.

And so it continued when we booked our bus tickets to Quy Nhon and a tour to the My Son tombs through the same agent.  Again, we were careless as we should have checked with a couple of agencies before we bought the bus tickets but this was an apparently reputable agent recommended by Lonely Planet (a mention in LP is clearly seen as a licence to print money – once places have a mention in LP, prices are hiked and often underhand tactics employed).  This was not the case in China where places recommended by guide books there seem to go out of their way to maintain a good reputation.

Not only were we charged at least 3 times the going rate, the bus we were booked on was an ancient boneshaker of a minibus and Paul could barely squeeze into the seats!.  A ticket for a third of the price would have secured us seats on a coach with air con and comfortable reclining seats that Paul would have had half a chance of fitting into.

The tour we booked turned out to be OK and as the price was advertised at the door, they couldn’t overcharge us.  The trip was booked to capacity which meant that we were all squeezed into a tiny bus with hardly any leg room for anyone over 5’10” but that is to be expected in Vietnam and not confined to Hoi An. 

My Son temples
It was a stiflingly hot and humid day but the temple complex at My Son was lovely and the history surrounding it interesting.  The temples were built by the Cham people in about the 12th or 13th century.  The Cham people ruled central Vietnam up until the 1800s and after control of the area was taken from them, no attempt (probably quite understandably) was made to preserve this vast network of temples and they fell into disrepair.   As they crumbled the surrounding jungle slowly reclaimed the area and it was forgotten about until the early 20th century.

Nowadays the authorities are beginning to realise the potential this site has.  My Son has been likened to Angkor Wat in Cambodia but that it stretching credibility somewhat!. Some restoration is taking place but much of it is as it was when it was rediscovered.  It is definitely worth a visit and, although we didn’t have long to wander around (the only gripe we had), we were glad to made the tour.
A skilled wood carver in his workshop

Included in the day trip was a boat trip and lunch.  After our experience on the Halong Bay boat our expectations were curtailed accordingly.  We were pleasantly surprised that at no time we were in danger of capsizing but as far as lunch was concerned, it was just as well our culinary expectations were low because we were not disappointed.  We were presented with a small portion of cold rice, mixed with green beans, a little carrot and some tofu.  No amount of chili sauce could redeem this excuse for a meal. 

After “lunch” on the boat we also stopped off at a small village where we saw craftsmen carving wood.  It has to be said that Vietnam seems to have some of the most talented wood carvers using only hand tools.  Some of the pieces they create are incredibly intricate and  Paul was certainly impressed with their skill. 

Colourful boats on the river
We arrived back at the harbour an hour earlier than specified but that didn’t really surprise us.  It was a pleasant enough trip and cheap and cheerful.

That evening we went out and had dinner in a restaurant along the river.  There were many to choose from and this particularly restaurant turned out to be OK, nothing particularly special except that I had the opportunity to tackle my first crab, with help and directions on how to use the nutcrackers to access the meat..  I didn’t realise how messy it was to eat crab and how tough they are to crack and although it looked quite big on the plate you really don’t get much meat.  But it was tasty and at least next time I have crab I’ll have a vague idea of where to start.

We spent 4 nights in Hoi An and we tried to like it, kept trying to give it a second chance, but at every turn we seemed to have another bad experience, and in the end we just gave up.   We found the constant badgering wearisome, not because of the harassing per se but because the general contempt with which we were treated, almost universally.     

The Chinese influence is plain to see
The town itself is overrun with tourists and there are countless tailors, souvenir shops, cafés and restaurants, and competition must be tough.  The people came across as cynical, world-weary and have an empty, jaded look about them.  We felt that there was a definite barrier between the people trying to make a living and the visiting tourists as, unusually for us, we rarely interacted with anyone apart from a couple of kids on occasion.

That’s not to say Hoi An is not a pretty place because it is.  It is one of the few places in Vietnam that they have managed to save from the bulldozers and developers because it is an old harbour town, but we found it soul destroying.  Our whole experience there was negative, and it was hard for us to recall the Vietnam we had encountered previously.

We tried to understand why Hoi An was so different from elsewhere in Vietnam.  We took into account the  country's recent history of the war and, and prior to that, the fact that they were under the control of the French,  We could understand that as economic growth and relative political stability is something that has only been gained in the living memory of much of the population, they may have an ingrained sense of insecurity about the future and feel that opportunities need to be seized at all costs.  But our experiences were limited to this one place and neither thought that any of these theories explained why one particular destination had such a high incidence of cons and scams, dishonesty and cynical opportunism.  Maybe it is just the result of tourism over exposure.

We have, however, spoken people who absolutely loved Hoi An.  We have also spoken to people who left with exactly the same feeling as we did.

When we were planning this trip we had read plenty of reports of Vietnam describing the people as rude, deceitful, money-grabbing, short-changing and generally quite contemptible.  We refused to be swayed by this, we always aim to venture somewhere with an open mind, and our experiences before Hoi An convinced us that these reports were largely unfounded.  Of course, people are trying to earn a living, and there will be the odd opportunist who tries to rip you off – it happens everywhere – but up until now we had found the vast majority of people honest, friendly and straightforward. 

However, following our stay in Hoi An, we recognised the descriptions of people who had generalised a whole nation and more than anything we found it oddly upsetting.

At every turn, people tried to con us, overcharge us, and generally treat us with disdain.  It simply made our whole experience unpleasant and unreasonably stressful.

We were due to extend our Vietnam visas in the next 12 days and we seriously considered not bothering and just heading straight to Cambodia.  However, we had booked 5 days in a beachfront guesthouse south of Quy Nhon and so agreed we would head there, put Hoi An behind us, and decide what to do next.

We were more downhearted than anything.  We kept reminding ourselves of the lovely people we had encountered and interacted with before we arrived in Hoi An, but we needed to leave this hostile place and put in some time and distance between us and our awful experience before making any rash decisions.
Even on the bus to Quy Nhon, we remained suspicious when the guy on the bus arranged a taxi for us to take us to Bai Xep.  When the bus stopped, our bags were already loaded in the back of the taxi before we could say anything.  We hated ourselves for becoming so constantly guarded and distrustful but this is what it had reduced us to.  We need to kick back, take a deep breath and get some perspective.

So we headed to the aptly named Haven Guesthouse.



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