Sitting back in Hoi An after many years absence, it’s comforting to know that this ancient town remains as it was in my memory – enchanting, says Lisa McCowan. Back in Hoi An as part of the 10 day Very Vietnam tour, we had three nights to explore this unique coastal village that once again had me under its spell. Unlike Vietnam’s heaving cities of Hanoi and Saigon, Hoi An has a tranquility and timelessness that attracts visitors from all over the world who wish to explore the quieter side of Vietnam.
Having started our tour in the north, experiencing the charm and chaos of Hanoi, the spectacular scenery of Halong Bay and the history of the former capital of Hue, we next headed towards Hoi An. After passing over the scenic Hai Van Pass (Road of the Ocean Clouds) from Hue in the peak of the day’s heat, a few hours refreshment on arrival in Hoi An at our resort’s pool was much appreciated. Across the bridge from our nearby hotel, we followed a short walking tour of the Old Town as the day cooled. We visited the 200 year-old Tam Ky house, former merchants’ homes and the famed Japanese covered bridge which was first constructed on its site in the 16th century.
A delicious dinner spot recommended by our local guide Anh, was followed by what would be the beginning of days (and nights) of browsing and shopping. Through colourful shopfronts, galleries, fair-trade enterprises and market stalls, we gleefully searched for unique collectibles, local artwork and tailor-made outfits on the laneways and back streets of the Old Town. Once the sun went down, Hoi An showed us her night-time best by lighting up her laneways with coloured silk lanterns, giving us even more reason to look forward to the days and nights ahead.
The next day was spent cycling leisurely past rice fields and ox-ploughed farmland to the countryside village of Tra Que, where we experienced age old farming practices firsthand, participated in a cooking class making delicious Vietnamese-style pancakes and enjoyed a much deserved break from the day’s heat with a swim in the refreshingly clear water of the South China Sea at nearby Cua Dai beach. The charm of both the historical Old Town and the nearby coastline really did provide the perfect balance for a Vietnamese getaway, which by now had us all under its spell.
Our final day in Hoi An was a day of leisure, so with plenty still on the “to do” list I found myself up early strolling aimlessly through the streets, taking full advantage of the peacefulness of the Old Town being off limits to cars. I walked around the streets of the once significant trading hub of past centuries and soaked up the early morning calm. Given Hoi An’s Old Town and its culturally significant buildings are listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site, the preservation of this riverside town is likely to stay intact for years to come however it’s in the early hours of the morning that you can fully appreciate its beauty and tranquility.
As the morning mist slowly lifted, Hoi An’s locals were awakening for another day’s activities. The fish and fresh food market further along the river had already been operating for hours, catering to the daily needs of the local restaurants and cafes as well as the townspeople who routinely get up before day break to secure the day’s best catch and freshest fruit and vegetables. After all, a major reason for coming to Vietnam is to try for yourself the delicious and aromatic dishes that the country has proudly exported around the world – the freshest herbs, combined with spicy chillies in refreshing noodle soups and tasty stir-fries, not to mention the tropical fruits that make any meal in Vietnam memorable.
That said, there is plenty more to choose from in Hoi An, whether it be from the street food stalls that service lines of locals and well-informed tourists keen to enjoy fresh banh mi (Vietnamese-style baguette filled with meat, pickled vegetables, chilli and herbs); or the many award-winning cafes and restaurants that will tempt you with their popular local specialties. It could even be the chance to join a cooking class to learn a few more inside tips from local chefs, who at the end of the experience will allow you to enjoy the spoils of your labour, as we had the day before.
Later in the day the tourist groups arrive when the sun is at its highest and the small town is full of vendors and cyclo-drivers temptingly offering to whisk you away to the comfort of your air-conditioned accommodation; or before the river is full with boats (large and small) offering a fishing adventure or a sunset river cruise, Hoi An won’t overwhelm you. Whilst keen salespeople, the Vietnamese have a charm to their sales pitch that we find neither off-putting or offensive.
Whether it’s take-home souvenirs, a tailor-made outfit or a colourful silk lantern you find hard to resist, the Vietnamese’s reputation of being the friendliest people in the world is well deserved – warm smiles, a friendly chuckle and vendors willing you to test your bargaining skills, a shopper will treasure their time in Hoi An. If shopping’s not your thing, the seemingly endless coffee and tea houses on offer will not only provide welcome relief from the heat, but the perfect opportunity to try the famed Vietnamese coffee for yourself provided you like your coffee strong and sweet.
For an enthusiastic amateur photographer such as myself, all of Vietnam is a photo waiting to be taken but time wandering the laneways of Hoi An, any time of day or night, provides endless moments that are irresistible to try and capture. With the temptation of taking a riverboat journey in the afternoon, our last day in Hoi An passed too quickly and once the sun set spectacularly over the water, Hoi An turned to show us her night-time beauty once again with the historical town bursting at the seams with life and light.
Although hard to leave, our days ahead held more promise of exciting Vietnamese sights to experience such as the rice bowl of Vietnam, the Mekong Delta, the Cai Rang floating markets and the modern metropolis of Saigon. But there is no doubt we will all be back to Hoi An one day. After all, who can resist when our experience started with – “on behalf of myself and 93 million Vietnamese people, we warmly welcome you to our country and wish you the most enjoyable stay”. Thank you Vietnam for providing just that.