11 March, 2017

Bike Trip to Cam Kim Island

Location: Hoi An, Vietnam

Just after we arrived in Hoi An we saw an ad for a free bike tour of Cam Kim, the island next to ours. Julie tried to call, email, and contact them through their website to no avail. We decided they must have closed down - so sad, since, (as you know) we are always interested in anything cheap or free.

Then, just last week Julie was walking to the market one morning and saw the Cam Kim ferry full of bikes just leaving the dock. The free bike tour had advertised taking the ferry to Cam Kim. Hmmm. Being quick witted she ran over  to the water's edge and shouted “Are you the free bike tour?”. “Yes!” was the reply. The ferry was rapidly getting further from the dock so Julie shouted “I've been trying to get hold of you for a tour and nobody has replied!”

“You need to go to our office – the address is on the website” they shouted back.

We were all so excited to get this news so that day Julie walked up to the office and booked the tour for us all for the following Saturday.

We've walked and taken bikes over to Cam Kim, an island just south of our An Hoi Island, a few times since we've been here. It's connected to An Hoi by a narrow, new (completed just last year) bridge that's only for bicycles and motor bikes We love it there – it's very agricultural, quiet and laid back, and there's very little of the high-powered tourist industry we see daily here in Hoi An.

The tour is offered by an organization that supports local families and encourages sustainable tourism on Cam Kim Island. The guides are young Vietnamese college students who use the tours as an opportunity to hone their English language skills.

We rented bikes, got up early and rode out to the tour office in Hoi An. There were several groups and the five of us (Steve & Marg, Julie's brother Tony, and us) lucked out with our own tour. Our guide Thao (pronounced “tao”) was sweet, friendly, funny, and spoke very good English. She led us through Hoi An old town on a somewhat harrowing ride through the morning market traffic to the ferry dock where we boarded.
This ferry boat was a piece of work. It was old, tired, and wooden, and had one of those old “ca-chunk ca-chunk ca-chunk” single cylinder diesel engines. The gear shift was a bent piece of pipe sticking up through the deck, and the throttle was a knotted string leading up through the deck. The captain wrapped the string around his finger and pulled it to increase speed and released it to slow down. The engine speed fluctuated the whole way over to Cam Kim. All-in-all a rather “Rube Goldberg” but obviously effective arrangement. At one point he kicked off his sandal and grabbed the knotted string between his toes so he could keep the speed up while he stepped forward to reach something on the cabin roof.

The tour lasted 4 hours and we definitely got our money's worth :)

 Our first stop was a boat building operation. These wooden boats are well made and very sturdy. Built completely with wood and fastened with wooden dowels, each one is a work of art. We were impressed with their lines, their workmanship, and they all appeared to be very seaworthy. Note the varying sizes from small to large sea going fishing boats. 
All the fasteners are wooden pegs like this

This is a dragon lion called a unicorn by the Vietnamese
 At our next stop we learned that there are several kinds of pagodas. This one was for all members of one family and was established in the late 1800s. We were shown the family tree going back 12 generations and got a lot of insight into the family's traditions, religious beliefs, and ancestor worship. By the time we were done it was around 10 am and starting to get really hot – near 90% humidity at 85 F (that's 30 C). Whew!
 After a short ride we stopped at a house where an old woman and her daughter were weaving grass mats. We learned that these are used by Vietnamese people instead of mattresses. We were told that they sell for 100,000 dong ( $4.50) Our guide told us she could NOT sleep on anything but a grass mat – a mattress was too soft. Now we know why all the hotels, homestays, and rentals over here have really, really firm mattresses! We got to try our hands at weaving and drink some tea, and even feed their cows in a pen outside the house. A very generous and friendly family.

This was followed by a stop at a house where another family was making rice paper for noodles. We had already seen this process in Mekong but that had been a more mechanized process, this was all done by hand, a true cottage industry. We got to spread the rice batter over a tightly stretched silk membrane where it is steamed for about a minute. Two or three more layers are added until it is thick enough to make noodles. Remove it from the steam, lay it out, let it cool, then slice it into noodles with a knife (or use a noodle cutting machine). It is an interesting, time consuming, and hot process. They also offered us a cup of iced tea and some yummy noodle snacks. We met the whole family, husband, wife, tiny son and even the 90 year old grandma how wonderful.

Can you tell which one is Julie?

 The last stop was a wood shop where all manner of intricate carved wooden souvenirs were made. The artist won third place in a national competition
for an intricate and beautiful piece that contained 1,000 carved dragons, this piece was on display at the shop.

Thao was a great guide and we learned a lot about Vietnamese life in general as well as how each of these families produced an integral and necessary product for use by the local society.
Marg, Tony & Steve sitting on the foredeck of the ferry
The free tour turned out to be not exactly free - we each had to pay 20,000 dong for the round trip on the ferry and a 30,000 dong donation each (total of about $2.25 US) – however, we got to hand a portion of this to each family as we visited them, so we know for sure where it went. Every place we stopped on the trip was to an off the beaten path home or business we doubt we'd have found on our own, no signs advertising them as a business, so we were more than happy with the trip and came back hot, sweaty and tired, but happy and full of lots and lots of new knowledge.

Kudos to Hoi An Free Tours and Thao – great job and thanks!!

Such a great job, in fact, that we actually just did this tour a second time with another visitor, Tony's girlfriend. We got another tour guide named Ai (pronounced 'Aye'), who was also great. And she gave us a slightly different dialog so we learned even more about the island and businesses we visited.