Thursday, 2 July 2015

Hai Van Pass - Hue to Hoi An

The entrance to the Old City
              A city bleeding its history of grief and turmoil, one really can feel the pain emanating from the walls of the Imperial city of Hue. I’ve read accounts of people saying they felt or had haunted dreams. As Anthony Bourdain said, “Hue is, in many ways, a city of ghosts, of memories and spirits.” Not that I’m a superstitious one myself, the past really can be felt here. My first time through Hue was brief. So brief, once I returned I decided I had never actually been here before. This time I slowed my pace dramatically. Casually walking around the Imperial City, the Dong Ba market, actually entering the Citadel, rode scooters to the surrounding tombs. A visit to the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) is only a couple hours away with tunnels to explore. An experience I regret not making the time for. Many I have talked to, myself included at first don’t feel Hue has much to offer. They pass through in a day, maybe two. There’s so much to see here behind the quiet shroud of a resilient past.

Bun Bo Hue
              As everywhere in Vietnam, there is the provinces specialties that can never be missed, and this time I didn’t want to pass them by. Only a small breakfast at the Dong Ba market of Banh Canh Cua, a tapioca noodle soup with crab and quail eggs, followed by a 3 hour exploration of the citadel slowly pacing along I was ready for another feed. Into the old city, out for a wander until I found something street side, and I was not disappointed. Something good usually comes out of wandering with only an idea of a destination. Banh Trang Nuong is what I found. The best way to describe it would be a Vietnamese pizza. A rice paper with pate, chili paste, herbs, fried shallots and egg poured over top as the food glue. It was then grilled over charcoal and cut into wedges, a perfect light snack. Later in the week I took a cooking class of Hue’s more known dishes. Banh Beo, a rice flour steam cake. Banh Khoai, a crispy Hue style pancake, thicker than the Banh Xeo of Hoi An.
              On my final morning before hitting the road I went in search of my last Bun Bo Hue. In five days I’ve had four bowls of this and been slightly disappointed, but this bowl changed everything. As I approached, she was hunched over her cauldron dishing out the one thing she serves. I sit down, get the initial stares followed by smiles and order a bowl. Sliced beef, light dumpling like beef balls, and what every other bowl has been missing. A large cube of blood curd. I kept wondering if they were holding out on the foreigner, assuming I wouldn’t appreciate it. I just wanted some blood. All this though over a pile of ‘bun’ noodles with a plate of shredded banana flower, beansprouts and herbs on the side. Satisfied, both with my Bun Bo Hue and giving this dreary city the time it deserved, I was southbound towards the Hai Van Pass with Hue at my back.

              This was the first time I set out alone on a motorbike. The feeling of freedom rushes in, the same feeling I had leaving Pakse onto the Bolaven Plateau. Once the construction thinned and miles away from the city limits, my attention couldn’t help but be drawn from the road. Growing hills on my right, a fishing village on my left. I mainly had to watch out for buses, they don’t stop for anything or one, and fair enough, they’re bigger. I began to rise in the mountains, the views becoming nothing short of amazing, simply unforgettable. Winding around the sides of mountains, climbing in the alpine trees with the Pacific Ocean opening up on my left. A sight that was burned into my mind on my previous trip, even when I couldn’t properly appreciate it behind the window of a bus. I pulled over a handful of times to snack on tamarind and gape out at the vista before me.

              The pinnacle neared, the once was American bunker at the top of the Hai Van Pass lay in ruins overlooking the land. Stopping off for some rocket fuel, Vietnamese coffee, of course I had to climb among the old walls like a child. From this point on it was downhill into Danang, the only section of city I had to navigate through. Weaving down, I was sent on a bit of a joy ride by some construction in the city, inevitably getting lost. Usually detours take you back to the original road, but not the case here. I found myself in the middle of traffic which is less intimidating than it looks. Just flow with the mob of bikes like water down a stream. Long after accepting I was lost, just enjoying the cruise, I thought it wise to find my way back to highway before the sun set. Eventually locating myself after an extensive examination of the map, I was en route to Hoi An.

              The remainder of the drive was straight through flat countryside, then almost only blinking the dull yellow buildings of Hoi An were all around me. I’ve been awaiting this moment for some time since my last departure. The contrast of such a relaxed town where one can walk the river and enjoy a coffee with the hustle of the hundreds of tailors and vendors.
Bale Well
            I saw it on the way in to my hostel, a restaurant on my mind since I arrived back in Vietnam. Down a quiet side street, Bale Well sits on a corner always with the buzz of conversation. For 110,000 ($5.50), enough to fill a table for two comes to me. A plate of pork skewers, spring rolls, pickled vegetables, herbs and greens, peanut sauce and chili sauce get delivered one after the other. Lastly and the star of the table, Banh Xeo. A crispy, thin rice flour pancake with shrimp and beansprouts. This is one of my favorite meals in Hoi An. If roaming the market as I do, there is about a dozen stalls serving up Mi Quang and the areas well known Cao Lau. Essentially both are noodle salads, but don’t let that deceive you, there known for a reason. Hands down though, my number one eat in Hoi An is from the now known as Banh Mi Queen. My absolute favorite sandwich in the world thus far. I found her on my first visit here in a small corner just off from the market, and later found out Anthony Bourdain also visited this spot on No Reservations. I was stunned when I searched out the shop and found it missing. I heard of this Banh Mi Queen but my loyalty held true… for a day. I wanted a Banh Mi. I strolled by the location I was given and sure enough, there she was. Been crowned queen and upgraded to a store front with tables inside. I’m unsure of all the ingredients on this thing of beauty, I just say everything. Some mysteries are better left unsolved.
The best sandwich in the world
              While here, I generally avoid the tailors as best as possible, stroll the streets, lounge in cafes, eat lots and recharge. I’m definitely not a suit guy but I figured this time, what the hell. I’m in the Eden of cheap tailors. I spent about seventy dollars getting a jacket and pants made in just over a day. If you’re going to do it, this is the place.
            Renting a motorcycle and traversing around have been highlights over the past year. Whether India, Thailand, Laos and now Vietnam, the experience is priceless. Next time I’ll be on two wheels for the length of this beautiful country, but this is definitely the only way over the Hai Van Pass.