I have less than two months until I say goodbye to life in Japan and touch back down on US soil, if not for good than certainly for a while. As with most endings this one has left me conflicted. While I’m eager to return home to friends, family and a fridge stocked with all varieties of cheese and reasonably priced fruit, I’ve already begun to miss the home I’ve built for myself here. It’s a strange feeling, missing a place you still inhabit. Every place I go I wonder if it’s for the last time. I catch myself falling back in love with little aspects of Japanese life that had previously faded into the background. I’m both grateful for this hyper-awareness and saddened by it, because of course I’m just that much more aware of what I will miss and how fast the time is going. Continue reading
On the road again after my stop at the Ibusuki sand baths, I took several detours – I visited Cape Nagasakibana, the southernmost tip of the Satsuma peninsula, and Lake Ikeda, the largest lake in Kyushu. Both were gorgeous, offering stunning views (despite the crazy heat) and interesting history. A highlight for me was the statue of Lake Ikeda’s resident monster, Issie (pronounced ee-shee), which is absolutely the Japanese version of Nessie. The lake is actually home to giant eels, so as far as I’m concerned the lake does in fact have monsters. Continue reading
Japan is made up of 47 prefectures. I live in Miyazaki, on the southern island of Kyushu. Much like in the US, it’s very easy to travel between prefectures, and many travelers make it their goal to visit as many as possible. Personally, I’ve visited roughly ten prefectures, mostly via road trips around Kyushu. The travel fanatic in me is very tempted to go the “gotta catch em all” route, but it does seem a bit unreasonable if I’m only living here for two years.
So instead of traveling the whole country, I’ve been enjoying the sights a little closer to home. A few weeks ago we had a national holiday on a Thursday, so I took the opportunity to make a long weekend for myself and do a bit of exploring in neighboring Kagoshima Prefecture.
If you find yourself traveling to Vietnam, you will inevitably hear about a handful of “must-see” destinations. Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Sa Pa, Phu Quoc Island, Nha Trang and Ho Chi Minh City are the ones I hear most often. But of all the places I’ve been told I MUST visit, I think Hoi An was the only one I consistently heard positive things about, and I mean overwhelmingly positive. I never met a single person who didn’t like Hoi An, and several (including my Vietnamese friends) have said it was their favorite place in Vietnam. Strangely, nobody could give reasons for their love of this town. So naturally I figured I needed to see what all the fuss was about for myself.
I set out from Hue early in the morning and boarded a sleeper bus headed for Da Nang and Hoi An, about a four hour ride. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the sleeper buses here in Vietnam are pretty comfortable,and the top bunk offers a nice view of whatever you happen to be passing. This trip was particularly beautiful, and absolutely lived up to the gorgeous travel photos I’ve seen advertising the central highlands. I wish I had stayed awake for more of this trip, but if you give me a bed and a rocking bus, I’ll probably fall asleep. I did manage to get a few photos between naps though.
Mid-day we arrived in Hoi An, and upon disembarking the bus were bombarded with the usual crowd of taxi and xe om drivers looking to get a fare. Before getting on the bus I had been told that my hostel was within easy walking distance of the bus station, so I refused taxis and decided to save a few thousand dong by walking. Luckily for me, several other passengers were headed to the same hostel. None of us were particularly great at reading maps, but we made it to our destination without too many hiccups.
As far as hostels go, the chain I stayed with in Hue and Hoi An, the “Backpacker’s Hostel,” was as stereotypically backpacker-y as you can get. Everything was clean, safe, and well-located, but they also had full bars, loud music late at night, and decorations with sexual puns all over the place. This isn’t exactly my scene, but my philosophy of travel is still that the hotel/hostel is only important for location, safety, and cleanliness. I don’t tend to spend much time in the room, so I’d rather not pay a ton for something I barely use. But man, the party thing is so not for me. I also tired quickly of the shallow conversations and constant discussion of how “real” this country is. It all stung of gross privilege and a well-meant but ultimately futile attempt to find “authentic experiences.” Honestly, I could go on and on about my frustrations with backpacker culture, but I’ll spare you that for now.
Regardless, I set my stuff down and went out to get a feel for my surroundings. I walked into the Ancient Town, the central attraction that takes up a good part of the city (which is really a small town). I quickly discovered that Hoi An was an excellent shopping destination, particularly if you want to have clothes tailored. Seemingly every other shop is a tailor, and everywhere you go people try to pull you into their stores. Even though I had plenty of time to have something made, I decided that I would rather wait and have this done in Can Tho, where the prices are lower and the hustle is nonexistent. However, if you’re only visiting Vietnam for a short trip, I think this is probably one of the best places to have clothes made. It’s also a great place to find charity shops and high-quality handicrafts. I found several beautiful jewelry stores, quilt shops and even a silent tea house, all benefiting local artisans or disadvantaged children. Nothing like a good cause to help alleviate the guilt of over-shopping!
In any case, I spent my three days in Hoi An wandering the streets and going from shop to shop, and was very happy. That first night I wandered into a shop called “Cool Japan in Hoi An” and chatted with the store owner, who just so happened to have lived in St. Louis. Small world! Everyone I met in the town was super friendly, and English was widely spoken. I’ve also never seen so many expats in Vietnam! If you’re interested in the tourism industry here, I guess this is where you end up (or Ha Long Bay). There were several expat-owned restaurants and coffee shops, including one that sold chai hot chocolate and delicious coffee, and I think I went there every day of my stay.
Besides shopping and sipping coffee, I also took a bike tour of the town and spent some time at the beach. I didn’t even realize Hoi An had a beach! It was gorgeous, and if I hadn’t already had my beach fill in Vung Tau, I probably would have spent a full day there. But in the end, I really prefer looking at the water to getting in it, so I wandered back to town.
So over the course of three days I learned to love Hoi An. It was cozy, quaint, and charming. The beaches are beautiful, the town is small and easy to navigate, and the food is fantastic. I finally got my hands on a doner kabob, which I have been craving ever since I left Hanoi (that’s three years) and it was marvelous. Local specialty dishes were also quite delicious, and there was no shortage of food options. And to top it all off, Hoi An is known for lanterns, which are everywhere in town. They look nice during the day, but the town is transformed at night. Wandering the lantern-lit streets was downright romantic, even if I was on my own.
At the end of three days I was sad to see my vacation coming to an end. While I had purposefully left my plans up in the air, giving myself flexibility should I find one place more interesting than the others, I decided to take my final day of the holiday and explore the neighboring city of Da Nang, which I will tell you all about next time.