Day 23 – Saturday 16th January – Hanoi to London

We had an early alarm call at the hotel to ensure that we had time to finish packing and have breakfast before or transfer to the airport at 7.45am.

We arrived in good time and checked in. Our flight was delayed by an hour, but it didn’t really matter as we had plenty of time in Hong Kong before our flight home.

On arrival at Hong Kong we collected our luggage and went through immigration before leaving our cases in the left luggage sang catching a train into the city. The weather wasn’t great, drizzly and misty so we abandoned or plan to go up Victoria Peak fort the view and instead wandered around the city looking at dinner if the old colonial buildings.

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After a quick bite to eat we caught the train across to Kowloon and walked through the flower, bird and fish markets, although the bird stalls had mostly closed for the evening.
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By now it was time to head back to the airport where we retrieved our bags and checked in.
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The flight left on time at 11.30pm and the pilot advised that we should make good time and arrive in London early but that we couldn’t land until 4.32am as this is the time that the airport opens for flights.

After a number of films and a little sleep, we landed as predicted at 4.32am and were greeted to a cold and snowy London.

Just the drive home now and the end to an amazing trip!

Day 22 – Friday 15th January – Hanoi

We had a lazy start and met a few of the group for breakfast at 8.30.

Our last day was spent relaxing around our hotels.  We checked out of the May de ville St midday and took a taxi to the hotel that we’d booked for the final night, the elegance diamond hotel.

On arrival we had a welcome tea, before being shown to our room, which is very nice!

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The hotel is located more centrally than our last hotel and we wandered out to get some lunch.  We went for a safe bet with some pizza and a beer and then returned to the hotel.

When we got back, there was a complimentary bottle of Vietnamese wine, from Dalat.  It was very pleasent and we lounged around the hotel during the afternoon. I also took advantage of the spa in the hotel and had a great Swedish massage.

We had a quick drink in the rooftop bar before heading out to the old quarter. We had a meal at a street cafe, with a beer, all for less than £5 for us both.

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After we finished we wandered off and came across a show being put on in the street.

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One final beer at a bar hoi, and we returned to the hotel to finish off packing for our return trip home.

Day 21 – Thursday 14th January – Halong Bay to Hanoi

We awoke early having had a good nights rest, with the gentle swaying of the boat. When we went upstairs we could see that it had been raining overnight. The weather hasn’t been as good as it might have been for our trip to Halong Bay, and its actually been quite cold, but even so, the views have been breathtaking.

After breakfast, which included the usual omelette, but also a beef soup (!), we cruised slowly around the bay taking in more of the sights. The scenery was breathtaking!

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We could see little house boats, with their fishing equipment bobbing up and down. We cruised on before arriving back at the port for 10 am where our bus was waiting to take us back to Hanoi.

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Halong Bay has been a real highlight of the trip so far!

We stopped on the way back at a craft centre, staffed by people with disabilities, where they were making amazing tapestries and other things like vases.  There were lots of things to buy, although nothing that we could really see at home. So, all we ended up buying were some sweets for work!

We arrived back in Hanoi at just after 3 pm and were greeted by a welcome drink of a glass of wine at the hotel. When our rooms were ready we headed up and spent the afternoon relaxing before the farewell meal.

We got a taxi to the old quarter and shared a Vietnamese meal at Yin and Yang!  While we were eating the heavens opened and we were glad that we weren’t out in it. It was a lovely end to the group trip (unfortunately minus Ed who didn’t make the meal). Once we paid and presented Phuong with his gift, we headed to a local bar for a drink before taking a taxi home.

We said our farewells in the lobby, in case we didn’t see others in the morning, and then headed to bed.

Day 20 – Wednesday 13th January – Hanoi to Halong Bay

We left the hotel this morning at 8am for the 130km journey to Halong Bay. On the outskirts of Hanoi we came across a brand new shopping centre, one of the first that we have seen!  We soon left the rush hour traffic behind and were travelling through a mixture of industrial and farming landscape.

After a couple of hours we stopped at a ceramics factory. They were making all of the usual things, but everything was decorated by hand. The women doing the painting worked amazingly quickly and without templates!

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They served is some mint tea before we had a look around the showroom.

We travelled on towards Halong Bay and stopped briefly for Phuong to buy some fresh pineapple.  It was peeled and ready to eat in the shape of a lollipop.

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We arrived at Halong Bay at 1pm.  There were loads of people waiting to board their boats, but when we arrived we were taken straight to our boat and headed off.

The boat is well equipped and our cabins are clean and tidy!  We cruised across the bay and were treated to some amazing sights, which the camera does not do justice?

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Lunch was served in the dining room/bar and consisted, as seems to be the norm in Vietnam, of a number of smaller courses, including fresh shrimp, soup, rice and a pork dish. The views through the windows while we were cruising along made the whole experience even better.

After lunch we stopped at one of the islands, where we went into a cave full of stalactites…

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The view from the exit to the cave were amazing.

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We returned to the boat and cruised on a bit further before reaching our overnight stop where the boat anchored. Seven of us, not including Ed, took advantage of the opportunity to go kayaking. We were taken to a pontoon by a tender before getting into our kayaks.

The first sights were through an arch into a lagoon where we saw monkeys living on the shore.

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We kayaked around the lagoon and then returned to the open water. I thought we were going back to the pontoon, but our guide has other ideas and we paddled away and towards the open sea. It gave a brilliant view of the karsts (the areas of land jutting out from the sea).

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However, the water got more choppy and the wind picked up making it a hard slog. It seems that the plan was to kayak all the way back to the boat, and we eventually managed this, although not before getting very wet from the water splashing into the boat. My boat companion was a complete novice, and my experience of kayaking isn’t really of open water, so I was pleased to get back to the boat and definitely felt that we’d earned our beers!

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After changing into dry clothes, we relaxed until dinner was ready. It was another meal with a number of courses, and the presentation was amazing, especially the fish in the net made out of carrot!

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Being on holiday certainly takes it out of you and by 9 pm we were all tired so headed off to our cabins for another early night!

Day 19 – Tuesday 12th January – Mai Chau to Hanoi

Had a reasonable nights sleep, although there was a bit of a fight in the night between the local dogs, right underneath our room.  The cockerels also seemed to be in good voice and I woke up early. The sounds of the countryside, including the cattle in the attached stable made an interesting difference to the frenetic sound of the motorbike horns! 

After breakfast, which consisted of a roll and fried egg, along with laughing cow cheese, we got back on the bus for the return trip to Hanoi.

The weather was overcast and as we climbed out of the valley, we stopped for a view of where we’d been, before we disappeared into the mist.

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We stopped in the way back at the same road side place, before arriving back in Hanoi at 1pm. We rechecked into our hotel and had a shower and change before meeting up with some of the others for lunch at a little place just along the street.

The menu was in Vietnamese and there wasn’t much English spoken so we ended up with some fried rice with chicken/beef and also some deep fried chicken. Anyway, the some thing only cost about £2.50 each, including a drink.

Some of us had opted for an optional bike tour in the afternoon and we meet back at the hotel at 2pm. Once we had our safety brief and had checked that it bike’s brakes worked, we cycled off!  After a short distance through some pretty tricky and busy streets, we arrived at the Cau long bien, a 2.5km bridge that spans the red river.

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It was built by the French at the start of the 20th century and resembles a dragon, which we couldn’t see until we travelled further away. 

A short while later we stopped at a place where we could see the places that locals come to get away from the city.

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The scenery and atmosphere was so different that it was hard to imagine that we were cycling through areas which were only less than 2km from the hustle and bustle of the main city.

Our next stop was at a bonsai tree nursery… A bit like an allotment, where the growers await a sale. There were some impressive trees there. 

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We cycled on, through the outskirts, before stopping at a temple. The gilding on the temple was amazing, and we saw them preparing the statues made out of wood and paper which would be burned as part of the new years festivities.

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After this, we headed to a local house for some green tea and fresh fruit.

Our final visit was to the plantation on the island in the red river. It is mainly bananas and we cycled around the concrete trails, stopping to see people who have made their houses on floating pontoons. These are apparently some of the poorest people in Hanoi and have him come from the countryside to try and make a living. They are farmers and tend the land around the island that we were on.

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We cycled back through the rush hour traffic… Quite an experience! Once we had dropped off our bikes, Ed and I went for a quick drink before going back to the hotel and to meet the others, minus the Russians, for food.

We wandered back into the old quarter and managed to find the place that we’d eaten the previous evening. Some decided to eat there, but we wanted to try something different… Big mistake as we ended up in a local restaurant where the food was bland and, perhaps, the worst that we’ve had in Vietnam.

We walked back to the hotel, via the coffee house for a nightcap before going back to the room to get ready for Halong bay tomorrow!

Day 18 – Monday 11th January – Hanoi to Mai Chau

We left our hotel at 8.30am and drove out of Hanoi through the rush hour traffic. There was quite a lot of smog in the air as we left the city.

The further away we got, the more the scenery changed and soon we were headed upwards into the hills. The scenery was tall hills, covered in lush green forests. We stopped after about an hour and a half for a break and a Vietnamese coffee… Hot this time with condensed milk!  It’s actually better than the ‘western’ coffee with milk that they try to serve! 

After a further hour we stopped briefly at a roadside village where every house seemed to be selling fresh oranges. Phuong bought some and we all had a sample. The oranges were really juicy!.

We moved on and had a quick stop at a roadside market with the locals selling rice cooked in bamboo and plants, including orchids!  The views of the countryside around were great. It’s scenery which I’ve never seen before, with tall rocky outcrops rising from the valley floor!

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We arrived at Pam Cooney, which is the home stay that we’re staying at. It’s an idyllic place, set amongst the rice paddies and is in the local style with houses on stilts. We’re in a shared dorm on the first floor.

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As it was 1 pm, lunch was ready and we dined below the house on soup, pork spring rolls, deep fried chicken, salad, rice and chips! 

The afternoon was spent simply relaxing at the home stay before we met back up with Phuong for an orientation walk at 4.30pm. We walked through the village and on into some paddy fields. The village seems to have a decent sideline in homestays and there were lots of houses advertising rooms.

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The views around were amazing and when the sun started to set, the colours on the hills were lovely.

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We carried on around there village and the standard of housing looked to be good.. These men were shaping bamboo into floor boards, like the ones in our dorm.

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Finally, we headed back towards the village and wandered around the centre where many of the houses/homestays have also been converted to shops selling the usual ethnic stuff.

Before returning to the home stay we stopped at the sunset bar, also a boutique hotel, and had a beer with some amazing views..

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After food, we went ‘next door’ for a local music and dance show. The women’s dresses were immaculate and it finished with a sort of okey cokey with audience participation and a rendition of Frere Jacques!

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Travelling definitely seems to tire everyone out and we were all in the dorm by 9.30! 

Day 17 – Sunday 10th January – Hanoi

We arrived in Hanoi at 5.30 am, on time!  Have to say it was the best nights sleep I’ve ever had, as it was a pretty rickety ride overnight, and the cabin was very warm. Seems like we were travelling in first class… So I have no idea how those in a lower class coped with the journey!

We were meet by our new driver fit the next few days, Mr Hung, and we went to our hotel. At 6am, our rooms weren’t ready so we had a shared day room to freshen up. 

Ed and I had a wander around the hotel and had a hot Vietnamese coffee before meeting the group at 7.30 for breakfast. Phuong took us to a local place where the choice was (a huge) chicken it beef Pho…a local specialty.

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The portions were huge, quite spicy, but very tasty… Not something we would usually eat so early. However, it only cost us about £1.30 each.

After this, we walked to a local coffee house which is also the meeting point for the Harley Davidson club, to have a coffee.

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After a coffee we met out driver again and headed to the Ho Chi Minh memorial complex. Or first stop was to see the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh… A very odd experience, but one that is clearly an important pilgrimage for some Vietnamese.

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We then wandered around the palace complex and saw the old buildings of government, including some impressive French colonial ones!

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There were lots of uniformed visitors, despite it being Sunday including older men and teenagers, ask in the dark green colours.

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Next we went to the government offices on site and saw a range of HCM’s cars (Russian and French) before seeing the simple house on stilts where he lived after ‘retirement’  for the 11 years until his death in 1969.

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A quick visit to the museum, filled with pictures of HCM’s travels, and promotion of the communist system, before we headed back to the hotel to check into our rooms.

We had just under an hour before meeting Phuong again for a simple lunch… as it turns out in a street cafe!  It was pretty busy with locals and there weren’t enough tables so she simply fetched some more and ‘laid’ them out on the opposite street corner!

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The lunch was delicious, and again there was no choice… Vermicelli with BBQ beef.  The cost was less than 70p each.

After this we had a walk around one of the lakes and stopped for some refreshment on the way. 

We regrouped at 5pm to walk around the old quarter, and the Hoan Kiem lake.  Hanoi has a lovely feel about it and the streets were bustling with tourists and locals alike with architecture that is a mix of local and French influence.

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We walked around the lake to the theatre where we were booked in to see the 6.30 pm water puppet show! The concept is one that is unique to Vietnam and originated in the paddy fields.

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The show itself was interesting with puppets being controlled in the water from behind a curtain. The show was only 50 minutes long, and divided into 12 scenes, each depicting something different!

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After the show Phuong met us and took us through the streets, which were even more bustling than before, to little Hanoi restaurant where we had a shared meal!

Finally we walked back towards our hotel through the night market and along some other busy streets.  We got back at around 9 pm and were going to have a drink at the rooftop bar, except that it was closed, so we called it a night and went back to the room to catch up on our diaries and review the days pictures.

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Day 16 – Saturday 9th January – Hue to Hanoi

After breakfast we met our group for a motor bike tour!

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We drove for about 20 minutes through some back lanes and then out across some paddy fields. The breeze in the air was great, and despite the fact that we were travelling along, my driver, Roo, spent the journey trying to chat to me and by the time that we arrived at Than Toan, I think we’d covered just about every topic, including politics!

The bridge itself was built in the 18th century. 

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There was a local market and we had a look around before having a Vietnamese coffee! We also saw some of the aluminium boats which have been made from the remains of American helicopters.

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There was also a museum and a very friendly lady demonstrated how they moved water using a pedal wheel, and also how they fish!

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We drove on and back to Hue where we headed to the citadel. This was the main residence for the royal family between 1802 and 1945. Much of the area was destroyed by both the French and Americans during the war and the Vietnamese are now busily restoring the old buildings.

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The complex is huge, and has an outer moat, inner moat and a wall around the forbidden city, the area where the risk family had their private quarters. As with lots of places, there are plenty of reminders of the war with bullet holes in the walls!

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We rejoined our motorbikes and headed along the perfume river to Thien Mu pagoda. This is situated on the river and is a large complex with a pagoda, temple and gardens.

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It is also the place where the car, an Austin, of a monk who burned himself alive, protesting at oppressive regime,is kept.

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There was also a very jolly Buddha!

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Next, we got on board a boat which we were told had been made out of an American mobile helicopter landing vessel for a cruise down the river.

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We spent about half an hour on the boat before getting off and being driven by our guides to a monastery for a vegan lunch! 

Finally, after lunch we headed back on the motor bikes to the hotel. All in all a very memorable experience and despite the chaotic nature of the roads, and the pure abandonment with which motor bikes seem to hurl themselves into roundabouts, I didn’t really ever feel unsafe! 

After some time to freshen up, we left the hotel at 4pm to catch out overnight train, the Reunification Express, to Hanoi. We had ordered a take away that was delivered to the station and picked up some refreshments for the journey.  The train arrived and left on time!

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The carriages are quite comfortable, or at least the one that we are in is, with only four of us a carriage, two up and two down. There are regular passing trolleys selling all manner of goods including food, drinks and t shirts! 

After eating and having a chat and a beer with our fellow travellers in our compartment, we settled in early to write our diaries, prepare for bed, and get an early night (it’s currently only 8pm)… We have a 5.30 am arrival time in Hanoi in the morning!

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Day 15 – Friday 8th January – Hoi An to Hue

Back on the road today to travel the 120 km to Hue. Before leaving Hoi An, we stopped at a bakery to get baguettes for our lunch. Everything was freshly prepared while we waited.

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It was only 9 am and already the temperature and humidity are high. On the way out of Hoi An we saw a celebration taking place with Chinese dragons!

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You definitely get the impression that now is a good time to visit Vietnam. The restaurant that we ate at yesterday lunchtime face a bit of history about Hoi An. In 1992 the were just 8 hotel rooms in the city, with two shared bathrooms and only a handful of western tourists in the city at any one time. Now, there are thousands of tourists in Hoi An, and plenty more building going on.

Just outside of the city, between Hoi An and Da Nang, 12km away, there is a maybe development with new hotels and a golf course being built. Phuong told us that in the near future there will be 50,000 5 star hotel rooms in this area!  This seems to match the development that we’re seeing everywhere in Vietnam and it’s bound to have an effect.

We stopped at the end of the long beach to take in the sights and sounds… And smells!  This stretch of sand is called China beach and it is where American soldiers travelled to for R&R during the war.

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This photo shows the view back along China beach and the next, the view where we stopped, which is still dominated by fishing boats and local people going about they’re daily business.

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On a hill jutting out into the sea at the end of the beach is a very tall marble statue of the lay Buddha.

After leaving Da Nang, we headed up on the old road through the Hai Van pass, 500m above sea level. The views at the pass were amazing and you can still see the bunkers from the various wars which have commanding views of the area!  We stopped for photos and a Vietnamese coffee.

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There is a tunnel now which provides a much quickest route north, if you’re in more of a rush! 

The other side of the pass we stopped for some photos of the bay. Phuong told us that 99% of people here are fishermen, and judging by the hawkers that surrounded the bus when we stopped, the other 1% are trying to sell maps. However, the views of the bay, and the tunnel emerging from the mountain were worth the hassle!

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After eating our packed lunch we arrived at Thien Tri, the tomb of the third king of Vietnam. His burial complex is just on there outskirts of Hue, although they still don’t know exactly where in the complex he is actually buried. Much of the complex is in ruin, and singer still shows the scars of the American war, including bullet holes.

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One of the temples has been restored and shows how the original complex would have looked…

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We returned to the bus and headed into Hue and checked in. Our room is on the 11th floor so gives panoramic views of the city.

As it was only 2 pm and we weren’t meeting until 6, we walked around the town and across the bridge to the market. Lots of very narrow corridors…

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When we got back to the hotel I went for a swim … Although the water was pretty cold… So I didn’t make out beyond a paddle. We then went for a drink in the 12th floor panoramic bar.

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At 6 we met up with the rest of the group for a rickshaw ride around the old citadel before arriving after an hour to a friend of Phuong’s house.

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Here we are a 5 course meal, including a soup, stew, salad and fish course. 

The rickshaw then took us back to the hotel where we had a night cap at the rooftop bar. 

Tomorrow is a motor bike ride and trip on the perfume river!

Day 14 – Thursday 7th January – Hoi An

After the last few days with an early start we had a lie in this morning… And only just made breakfast!

After this we wandered back into the central area and bought a ticket to view some of the houses and pagodas inside. We saw Tan Ky house, an example if a late 18th century shop house combining Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese architecture.

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We also went into Phung Hung house which has been in the same family for 8 generations. Our last two stops were at the Cantonese Assembly hall, just one of the various assembly halls on Hoi An, and then the museum of trade ceramics. There are a number of assembly halls because historically reach ethnic population from China had their own community.

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We had a light lunch at the Mermaid restaurant before catching a taxi back to our hotel… Ed’s ankle is doing its tropical thing and his bites are swelling… What with the anti malaria, vitamin B1, antihistamine and antibiotics that her had now started, I’m sure he would rattle if he bounced to much!

We siege the afternoon lounging around the hotel before meeting up with everyone else for a meal at the banana leaf restaurant. We caught a taxi there and back, in deference to Ed’s ankle!  Last night in Hoi An tonight…. Off to Hue tomorrow!