I must admit I knew very little about Hoi An before my arrival. My guide book spoke of it in glowing terms and I had heard it referred to as a city of lanterns. I had also overheard some French backpackers complain that it was too expensive and full of tourists.
The city is roughly half way down (or up) Vietnam and is currently home to about 120,000 people. Thankfully its reliance on tourists has not dampened the charm of the area, in fact it has increased investment in keeping the place as scenic as it is.
I stayed in a hotel along the river bank, about a 10 minute walk from the centre and after having dropped off my bags, immediately headed into town. The first street I encountered was littered with little shops selling trinkets to tourists. Vietnamese coffee filters, paddy hats, t-shirts and other similar items. Each shop had one or two women positioned outside, who would call out “Hello” as soon as you pass by. This was often followed by “You buy something?”. One American tourist was amusing himself by singing “goodbye” in response to every “hello”. Endless fun.
Just one street down, I ended up face to face with Hoi An’s iconic Japanese bridge. Smaller than I had expected and home to a number of bats (at least at night), the bridge is every bit as beautiful it appears in photos. It was built by the Japanese in the 1590s, as a link between the Chinese and Japanese communities. Each entrance has its own set of stone guardians. One side is watched over by a couple of dogs and the other a pair of monkeys.
It was standing on the bridge that I first caught a glimpse of the section of the river which crosses the centre of town. I had not been expecting to see such a striking image. The town was lit up with hundreds of multi-coloured lanterns and looked like something out of a Hayao Miyazaki film. It all seemed a bit surreal, like part of a film set. It certainly didn’t strike me as a real town and reminded me of when I had visited the village in Disneyland Paris.
The one shop which stood out to me was the Ô collective. This high-end (relatively speaking) store, sells good quality t-shirts, decorations, rice wine, propaganda posters and much more. The woman behind the till when I visited, was French, and explained that she had ended up living in Hoi An after meeting a French-Vietnamese man. She had been set to go live in Canada, but changed her mind and headed for warmer climes. She said she had some regrets – I can imagine, Hoi An is beautiful but pretty small – but was happy with her decision. She also showed us the water mark from last year’s floods (Hoi An’s river floods frequently) which was about waist high. Seems it’s not always so peaceful in Hoi An.
Also check out “Reaching Out”, a shop filled with beautiful decorations, postcards and handicrafts made by disabled Vietnamese people. A percentage of proceeds are reinvested in training and supporting disabled people.
The streets of Hoi An
Walking through the stall, bar and shop lined streets, I was reminded of another experience: Zelda’s Castle Town. The shopkeepers and town folk all appear to be one-dimensional characters: “It’s free to look,” “Where are you from,” “How long you stay?” “Motorbike?”. However, behind these repetitive marketing messages, it is possible to catch a glimpse of their lives outside of their trade. One bar, for example, housed an impressive aquarium full of exotic fish. The tables were adorned with small jars of water containing guppies and a collection of fishing rods was visible through a crack in a door behind the bar.
One woman, who sat outside her shop like countless others, would harass potential customers as soon as they displayed the slightest interest in her wares. She was so persistent, almost desperate, that she was managing to keep everyone away from the shop. She looked on in disbelief as customers poured in and out of neighbouring shops, selling exactly the same items. She was either new to the job or terrible at sales. A passing American asked how much a “Kill Bill” t-shirt cost and she shouted “$10”. He stormed off angrily: “10 bucks, get outta’ here!”. She then turned to me and offered me the same t-shirt for $7. Not that I had displayed any interest in it.
One night I came across another Zelda-esque scene. As we walked around the city centre, lost and looking for familiar sights, we found a group of local children playing a combination of Piñata and Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Participants paid about 10p, for the chance to try to break a suspended clay pot, using a short stick. The difficult is that you had to do it blindfolded and start from about five meters away. Children tried to calculate how many steps they needed to reach the pot and then put on the mask and walked blind to where they imagined the pot was, before taking a single swing. We both tried and failed, but it was a beautiful scene to fall upon.
Hoi An is also home to a huge number of tailors. Although I didn’t fancy getting measured up, my girlfriend did. The tailor she went to was highly recommended to us from some friends and was hectic. As soon as we walked in a hostess rushed up to us and quickly identified my girlfriend as the interested party. I was subsequently left behind and wandered around the shop, looking at the many American, Russian and French tourists being fitted for clothes. As most people only spend a few days in Hoi An, the turnaround times for clothes are very quick – between two and three days – so I would recommend getting there as early as possible during your stay, in case you need to make any alterations. The clothes she had made were all of good quality.
You can purchase overpriced coupons (about £4 for five) to visit a number of museums and places of interest scattered around the town. The tourist offices will provide you with a map. Although some of the places are worth a stop (the old town houses are the highlight), others feel as if they were free to visit just a few years ago and have had an entry fee tacked on. If you’re in Hoi An you might as well, but it felt like a bit of a rip-off.
Food and Drink
Food in Hoi An was excellent and much of this was down to Morning Glory. Owned by local celebrity Trinh Diem Vy, the restaurant offers a selection of Vietnamese street food and other dishes. The Banh Mi (a pork and herb filled baguette) is one of the best things I’ve ever tried and the Banh Xeo (crispy pancakes) are incredible. Sure it’s full of tourists and there is cheaper street food on offer, but I wouldn’t have missed this restaurant for anything in the world.
There are of course a number of restaurants and street stalls for you to eat at scattered around Hoi An. During my visit I must have tried about seven and didn’t taste anything less than delicious – except one dish made with river prawns, which I’m not a fan of.
You can also head to the town market for a glimpse at the fresh food on offer. There’s a restaurant called “The Mermaid” in the vicinity which uses market produce for its dishes. It’s also owned by Trinh Diem Vy, so it’s bound to be good!
In terms of drinking holes, there are quite a few, both Western and local, spread out throughout the centre. I spent a pleasant couple of hours taking notes in Lantern Town, sipping Larue beers during happy hour (3pm-7pm), as I waited for her to finish in the tailor next door. The bar was serene, clean and they lent me a pen, so top marks from me. Cocktails were good as well and apparently there’s a restaurant too.
Snorkelling around Hoi An
If you get a bit tired of walking around the centre and don’t fancy going for a cycle in the neighbouring rice fields, a number of company’s offer snorkelling trips to the Cham Islands. We picked the half day option, for 600,000 VND each. After a bus and boat trip we ended up on the island and were given a quick tour of a pagoda and a conservation centre.
Personally, I found the plight of the Vietnamese Land Crab very interesting, but I think I was the only member of our group who did. In case you’re interested, it’s unfortunately a similar scenario to that facing many Vietnamese animals: a loss of habitat as the human population expands is leading to a decline in numbers.
The snorkelling itself was disappointing. The water for one, was freezing. In addition, after having seen a huge variety of underwater fauna off the shores of Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia, I was disappointed to see very few fish. In fact, the only species which seemed to be abundant was a type of small transparent jellyfish. The snorkelling equipment was also quite old, and some was covered in mould – bring your own!
After about 40 minutes, we returned to the island where we were given lunch. I was seated next to a friendly Swedish couple who lived in South Korea. The husband, let’s call him Lars, was very annoyed with how different office politics and everyday life was in Seoul. His wife, who had recently given birth, said Koreans were very inflexible. She added that this wasn’t a problem for small things, .i.e. they couldn’t get ketchup with chicken nuggets as that’s not how they are served, but was more of an issue when it came to not being able to give birth in the way she wanted. I didn’t ask any more questions. The food was good, spring rolls, steamed vegetables, noodles… but I was put off when a piece of fish dropped into Lars’ ample chest hair. It sat there for a while before he noticed and scooped it into his mouth using his chopsticks.
All in all, snorkelling is always fun, and the Cham Islands are worth seeing, but only if you need a break from the city. There are better places to snorkel in Vietnam.
Michele Martinelli is a London based writer, you can follow him on @Greatbites.