In the summer of 2013, after we got back from our North America trip, we sat down to get started on our wedding planning. Almost immediately, we began looking up honeymoon destinations instead. We figured that wedding planning would be a long and sometimes unenjoyable process, and we needed the promise of a getaway at the end to keep us motivated. In considering our options, we decided that we wanted to keep it close to Hong Kong, for a couple of reasons. One, we knew that the wedding day would probably be quite long, and, as we would be leaving for our honeymoon a day or two afterwards, we didn’t want to deal with the fatigue of long travel times or complicated routes. Two, prior to the engagement, we had booked tickets to Europe for Christmas 2016 with a group of friends, so we didn’t feel like making too many long-haul flights in a row. If you’re asking why we didn’t just make Europe our honeymoon, the simple answer is that we wanted to go someplace on our own as newlyweds first, even for a few days, before enjoying a group holiday. We also had a lot of free time, as we were both working from home at the time. Within a few months of our marriage, we’d both find new jobs in offices, so the timing couldn’t have worked out better.
Ashley and I had both traveled to Vietnam on our own before, and we loved our experiences. The food is light and delicious, the people are incredibly chill and friendly, and the countryside is stunning. It’s also between 1.5 to 2 hours away from Hong Kong, depending on where you fly to, which fit our needs perfectly. We decided on the central part of Vietnam, around the port city of Đà Nẵng, famous for its laid-back atmosphere and beautiful beaches. The temperatures in December would be a bit cooler than perhaps expected on a beach holiday, but it would still be comfortable t-shirt and shorts weather. There are also a number of cultural and historical sites in the area, including Huế, Mỹ Sơn, and Hội An, so we’d have the option of taking a day trip out of the resort if we ever felt like we were going stir-crazy. Recent history in Đà Nẵng saw it as one of the five major cities of colonial French Indochina during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it was the site of arguably the world’s busiest airport during the Vietnam War. Both the United States and the South Vietnamese air forces flew out of the air base in the city, before it fell to the North Vietnamese in spring of 1975. Beginning in the 1990s, local governments encouraged foreign investment and poured their resources into developing viable tourism and business-related infrastructure, so that, currently, numerous seaside resorts line the spotless coastline for miles in either direction.
Fusion Maia is a beach resort located fifteen minutes outside of Đà Nẵng. Their focus is on creating the most relaxing environment possible for its guests. Everything from the spacious layout of the grounds, the private but internally open architecture of the villas, the healthiness of the food, and the extensive spa and massage facilities is designed to gently strip away the accumulated layers of stress from the outside world. Whether or not it actually accomplishes this is entirely up to the guest, but the effort deserves to be recognized. Each guest is also entitled to two free massages per day, after which, if there are available slots, you can sign up for additional massages free of charge. All of this sounded wonderful to Ashley and me, so we booked our tickets and our villa with a private pool, before moving on with the rest of the wedding planning.
On Our Way
The months of planning flew by, the wedding day was lovely and beautiful, and, before we knew it, we were at the airport with bags packed and passports out. We flew to Ho Chi Minh first, the site of my stag weekend, and we joked about getting recognized at the airport. My groomsmen had dressed me up in a Sparta costume from the movie 300, and I’d spent the weekend wandering the busy city streets in a red robe and my boxer briefs. Throughout the weekend’s activities, dozens of city dwellers pulled me aside to take pictures and videos, and we were so impressed by how friendly everyone was. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but there are pictures of my glorious dad bod on dozens, if not hundreds, of mobile phones across the Mekong Delta. Sadly, I went unrecognized at the airport, and we continued our journey with a short domestic flight to Đà Nẵng. From the airport, we took a private minibus out of the city and through the serene gates of Fusion Maia.
The relaxation was as advertised, and we had no agenda throughout our honeymoon. It started in our villa, as we lounged on the deck chairs beside our private pool, soaking in the December rays. There was ample time to read and nap outside for as long as we wished, away from the constant noise, dust, smog, and people of Hong Kong. Fusion Maia also offers breakfast served any time, any place, on the resort, and there were a few days when we asked them to bring their breakfast spread to our room while we sunbathed outside in the afternoon sunshine. When weren’t ordering in, we enjoyed eating out at one of the restaurants at the resort, where they served simple but elegant Vietnamese dishes. The resort also had comfortable private beach beds set up by the ocean, and we’d bring our books out to read as a light breeze blew in off the South China Sea. Last, but not least, we had at least two massages a day while we were there, and there was one day when we had three. I did a few traditional muscle relaxation massages, but I figured I should also try something new while it was free, so I signed up for some sort of skin therapy wrap. The experience of being wrapped up was bizarre and uncomfortable, especially as I was covered in a cool cream throughout the treatment, but I can heartily recommend the other massages.
Hoi An Family Feuds
Fusion Maia also offered a free shuttle to Hội An, A UNESCO World Heritage Site and a popular tourist attraction in the region, so Ashley and I took a quick day trip into town. The history of Hội An begins in the year 1595, when the rulers of central and southern Vietnam, the Nguyễn lords, established it as a trading port. At the time, the lands comprising the modern nation of Vietnam were controlled by two rival families, and the northern regions were controlled by the Trịnh lords. The Nguyễn lords in the south were more open to trade and commercial activities than the Trịnh, and, under their rule, Hội An grew into the most important trading port in the South China Sea by the 18th century. The port and its streets teemed with merchants and traders from Europe, China, Japan, and India, growing the coffers of the Nguyễns. The Nguyễn lords also benefited from European war technology imported through Hội An and other trading ports, using them to great effect against the northern Trịnh.
Return of the Nguyens
It wasn’t the Trịnh that would eventually bring the Nguyễn lords to their knees, however. In the late 18th century, while the Nguyễn were occupied with invading armies from neighbouring Siam, three brothers from the village of Tây Sơn lead a peasant rebellion that effectively wiped out the Nguyễn family within six years. Buoyed by their military success, the Tây Sơn brothers headed north and conquered the Trịnh lords as well, creating the Tây Sơn dynasty. With the fall of the Nguyễn, Hội An fell into decline and lost its pole position in the lucrative Asian trade networks. All this is to set up the triumphant return of one Nguyễn Ánh, nephew of the last Nguyễn lord, who, after several unsuccessful military forays, managed to defeat the Tây Sơn and unify Vietnam under the revived Nguyễn family.
Forgotten but Preserved
Nguyễn Ánh was assisted by the French and, in return for their support, he granted them exclusive trade rights to Đà Nẵng just up the coast, forever shutting the door on Hội An as a place of import and significance. This was further exacerbated by the silting up of the nearby river mouth, and, for two hundred years, it was forgotten and untouched by the turmoil of Vietnam’s recent history. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the town, however. Its beautifully preserved buildings and streets are now a major tourist draw, putting the name of Hội An back on the map, centuries after the last trading ship lifted anchor and set sail for distant shores.
Banh Mi Queen
The old Nguyễn lords may be long gone from the local scene, but there remains a touch of royalty tucked away in a quiet, out of the way neighbourhood in Hội An. Here, reigning supreme behind a metal and glass counter for the last 30 years, stands Nguyễn Thị Lộc, the Queen of Banh Mi. Banh mi, a delicious baguette sandwich with a Vietnamese twist, is a legacy of French colonialism and local culinary ingenuity, and it is widely considered that one of the best, if not the best, banh mi in all the country is found at Nguyễn Thị Lộc’s unassuming storefront. Naturally, Ashley and I headed straight for her store after disembarking from the Fusion Maia shuttle. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like the Queen of Banh Mi was around to personally create a piece of banh mi heaven, but another woman, who I think is her daughter, was more than happy to serve us. The resulting banh mi was truly delicious, an outrageous blend of marinated meats, fresh vegetables, zesty herbs, and an irresistible crunchy-soft baguette. There are other very good banh mi stalls all over Vietnam, and you honestly can’t go wrong in my limited experience, but if you ever find yourself in Hội An, save room for this one.
History and Souvenirs
After rapidly and rapaciously consuming our banh mi sandwiches, Ashley and I set out to explore the ancient city on foot. Appearance-wise, I quite enjoyed walking through its colourful streets, the low blocks of buildings consisting of an eclectic mix of different architectural styles. Its cosmopolitan past was apparent in the details of its structures, betraying its European and Asian influences. The more recent impact of tourism is also apparent, as many of the ground floor spaces had been renovated as modern souvenir stores. It reminded us a little of Lijiang in Yunnan, which also housed souvenir shops in beautifully preserved buildings.
The search for authenticity can often be a losing game, especially in the world of travel. There’s an understandable drive to make authentic connections, eat authentic food, go to authentic places, and buy authentic souvenirs, for fear of falling into the trap of merely being a tourist. The goalposts of authenticity are constantly shifting according to the whims of travelers, often coinciding with the increasing popularity of a location with the unwashed tourist masses. So travel increasingly becomes a list of top nine things you must do to truly have an authentic experience, or top twelve secret or hidden places where you can still find the authentic or true or best thing. This is a game I try to avoid. My own travel philosophy is simple: do the research, see the things I’m interested in, don’t make a mess, and enjoy it for what it is, without making inappropriate and misinformed comparisons. Hội An is a beautiful town, and walking its streets is an excellent way to spend an afternoon. Due to its history and old beauty, it has become popular with tourists, and tourism and increasing commercial activity go hand in hand. It’s all real, it’s all authentic, and it’s all a part of Hội An’s ongoing and complicated history.
During our time in Hội An, we managed to squeeze in a cooking class with Gioan Cookery. Both Ashley and I are big fans of Vietnamese food, so when we looked up things to do in Hội An, we made note of the recommended cooking classes in town. At the time, Gioan Cookery offered a three course cooking class for USD 25, and you choose which three courses you want from their menu. From what I recall, we made banh xèo, a type of Vietnamese egg pancake, a soup with prawns and okra, and cao lầu, a noodle dish with pork and local vegetables native to Hội An. Our cooking instructor was well versed in the local ingredients, as well as the international pop charts, as she had a hit song for every step of the cooking process.
On our last full day in Vietnam, we took another cooking class at Fusion Maia, making spring rolls with one of the chefs at the restaurant. We’d been there for five restful days, but neither of us are built for holidays with too much downtime, and the cooking class was partially about just getting us to do something. It had been an exceedingly good honeymoon, filled to the brim with the best company, good food, massages, and relaxation, but it was reaching its expiry date, and we were ready to move on to the next phase of our December travels. We’d fly home to Hong Kong early the next morning to tie up loose ends and attend another friend’s wedding, before packing our bags and heading to the airport again. This time around, we’d be traveling to a new continent with a group of friends, some of whom have appeared in my writings before, and some who will be appearing for the first time. As I looked out onto the world through the plane window, the grey winter skies of Switzerland seemed a world away from the tropical hues of Đà Nẵng the week before, and that, dear friends, is the magic of travel.