Once the sun goes down, the lanterns lit up (and the temperature drops down a bit so you actually can breathe) Hoi An turns into a fairy-tale place. The town really comes alive at night. Though tourists seem to almost outnumber the locals, the Old Town has lost none of its traditional charm. It’s stuck in the old ages, in a good way. A very good way, indeed.
Sounds like your type of travel? Try to come to the Old Town during the day and you will see a completely different face of Hoi An. Hot, annoyingly crowded, bursting at seams from little shops selling all type of souvenirs. When I first arrived to Hoi An, I wasn’t impressed. I thought it was just another must-see place, a tourist trap. I came back again at night and something changed. I immediately fell for its charm. How could I not notice it before? It is, after all, considered one of the most beautiful places in Vietnam.
We arrive to Hoi An by bus. Overpriced bus, but who cares. It’s a brand new sleeper with soft beds and the air-con is on. What else does a backpacker want from life? 🙂 I am constantly amazed, how incredibly efficient, the Viets handle that huge amount of tourists coming to their country every day. It may seem chaotic at first but nothing happens without a reason here. Our hotel in Hue is located in a small yard – we’re picked up by two girls driving motorbikes, just to give us a 2-min lift to the bus stop – as if we couldn’t walk there…
We are being rushed by the driver so I leave my backpack in the boot and I quickly get on the bus. Oh! S…ugar! I left my kindle and my camera in the backpack. For the rest of the journey I am worried and cold! Beware of the top beds – it’s like sitting in a freezer (not that I ever sat in a freezer, but you can imagine). While entering the bus in Vietnam you will be asked to take off your shoes and put them in a black bin bag. How weird!
We have a short stop-over in a bar where Mario is scammed. The most classic way “can you show me banknotes from you country, sir?” – obviously he does and he changes his 10 pounds to dongs in that dodgy pop-up exchange bureau. It turns out that he got back the equivalent of 5 pounds only. Poor Mario!
We get to Hoi An and our bus stops in front of one of the hotels. Taxi drivers and xe oms (motorbike taxis) are already waiting to jump on us like a herd of hungry vultures. We want to get to our bungalow as soon as possible so we decide to pay ridiculously high price for a lift. It’s way more than renting a motorbike for a whole day! Our drivers can’t find the place, so we are driving around like idiots and everyone gets pretty nervous and tired. Finally we call the hotel and the receptionists picks up up.
We are in An Bang – a tiny village at the seaside. It’s an amazing place for a relaxing, laid back day. It’s so peaceful and quiet. There are two decent restaurants around, where we pop in each morning for a glass of freshly squeezed papaya or pineapple juice. If this is not heaven… then I don’t know what heaven is. I want to stay here forever!
Chilling at the beach in the morning, in the afternoon we go by motorbikes to Hoi An. It is a truly scenic route: warm rays of the sun set on our faces, summer wind in my hair, green and lush rice fields with water buffaloes and local people going home after a day of hard work. If you ask me what’s one thing that comes to my mind when I think of Vietnam is that road from An Bang to Hoi An. It was something beautiful.
On our first afternoon we rent bikes and decide to drive around to get to know the area. An Bang is a really small place, only a couple of streets with guest houses, but I can feel it in the air that it will soon become another popular tourist zone. The beaches are clean and empty. We swim in the sea (there is a gang of guys charging for beds but it turns out they are surprisingly nice and you can even negotiate the price… is it worth it though?). We drink beer. A lot of beer. In Vietnam beer is dirty cheap. A bottle of beer costs almost the same as a bottle of water (not a good news for my beer belly!) For dinner we try local speciality – Cao Lao, which comprises of the signature cao lầu noodles, slices of barbecue pork, pork crackling, bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs, it is then finished with a spoonful of stock. Nothing like you’ve tried before! Why? What makes it so special – you’ll ask. Well they say that the dish cannot be replicated outside of the town because the water used in it must be drawn from a well in the nearby Ba Le. The lye solution used to prepare the noodles comes from trees grown on Cham Island. This water is then mixed with ashes from certain trees, to give it its particular yellow tinge and slightly firm texture. The noodles will therefore be soft, enduring and flavored with special sweet-smelling additives. I must admit – this is one of my faveourite Vietnamese food. Even though, to be honest, it’s damn hard to choose your faveourites when everything tastes soooo good. Skip all the restaurants in Hoi An and run to the local market to try crispy wonton (flat, fried dumplings) and white roses (ravioli type dumplings). Simple, yet delicious! Yum!
Hoi An is one of those places everyone raves about, claiming it’s their favorite spot in Vietnam and praising its charm and beauty. And guess what? They are absolutely right (although to me, the whole country was simply amazing). Hoi An delivers. You can still feel that old colonial charm in the air. The elegant port town used to be famous for its incredible silk. Today, apart from traditional lanterns, bespoke tailoring business turned it into a hot – spot for tourist. Hoi An’s tailors claim they are able to make the dress of your dreams in less than 24 hours. They are fast, good and affordable. Many of us, tourists, coming to Hoi An have the experience of getting custom tailored outfit on their to-do list and I think it’s totally worth doing (especially if you go for pure silk), but we are travelling with small backpacks only and on rather tight budget (the only thing I can splash out are places to stay and FOOD!) so I have to comfort myself with a pair of elephant trousers (yes, the same elephant trousers everyone visited Thailand has) but I will buy them when we’re back to Hanoi.
My first impression of Hoi An? 30-degrees, hot, no shadow, full of shops with souvenirs and other crap. I wasn’t impressed. We quickly run away and went back to An Bang but we decided to give Hoi An another chance. We arrived in the evening, bought our tickets (it’s weird that no one asked about them before – maybe it was too hot for the ticket controllers to bother?) and start sightseeing. We managed to visit some Chinese temples, had a glimpse of the inside of some local houses, went to the famous Japanese bridge. Hoi An’s Old Town, though a bit dusty and run-down, is incredibly charming. It’s a muddle of little streets with some interesting colonial buildings including the Japanese Bridge and various old houses and assembly halls. You can see pretty much everything in one evening.
It’s getting dark. The colourful lanterns hypnotize the crowd. I fell in love with Hoi An at night. We stroll around the Old Town admiring the incredible festival of light. We observe people buying floating lantern for luck and sending them down the river. Suddenly I don’t care about how many people surround me. I start noticing unique handmade products, beautiful paintings and sculptures. In fact, many artists have their galleries here. This is how important Hoi An is on the cultural map of Vietnam.
Hoi An is incredible so set up your expectations high. Even though the crowd can sometimes piss you off, the atmosphere of the town at night is worth staying here at least a couple of evenings (and you can still go to the beach in An Bang in the morning). You can wander around, stepping into the world of merchants. You can see them tenderly touching delicate silk. You go further and you see European buyers admiring many unique, expensive products made of nacre. They drink black tea, the negotiate, agree on price, they buy and they sail away. Others are coming soon. In Hoi An time seems to stop in that perfect moment. Somewhere between the ebb and flow of the sea. Though there is more and more tourists coming with every ship, you have to remember that it’s them who made that old colonial port town buzzing again.