Hoi An had cropped up numerous times when discussing ‘Must See’ places in Vietnam with friends or people who have toured the region. We had high expectations, but. even these were far surpassed. What initially was a 3 day visit quickly turned into a 12 nighty stay, with us departing with a definite reluctance.
Rather than torturing you with a 12 day blow by blow monolith of an update , I will try and give some of the reasons why we fell in love with Hoi An.
The very appropriately named ‘Charming Homestay’, ran by charismatic owner Nhi and her permanently cheerful Mother, was the perfect base for our visit. Their generous. warm, maternal, intelligent personalities lend themselves to being natural hosts and we have never stayed somewhere which we have become so attached to in such a short amount of time. Our room was large ( a complimentary honeymoon upgrade!), immaculately clean, simply yet beautifully decorated, it was a haven from the midday heat of the Old Town or getting an undisturbed night of sleep after full days of exploring.
Upon arrival, Nhi explained to us in her flawless English the key sites in the city to visit, and her favourite street food vendors. Having grown up in Hoi An herself,she is a real ambassador for the city and is keen for all of her guests to have the best experiences they can.
The ‘Old Town’ area is a postcard perfect preservation of how I would imagine some parts of the country looked many moons ago. Cars and motorbikes are not permitted in the Old Town during peak hours, however, foot traffic can be heavy at times, but, the area manages to maintain a aura of peacefulness and harmony. A combination of one or two storey open fronted tailor shops, cafes, bars. restaurants, galleries and heritage sites – decorated tastefully in dark wood and lanterns, complimented with a bustling fresh produce market, illuminated bridges and winding alleyways all make this such a special area – we talked to a number of westerners who came to visit and had ended up settling down here ( despite needing to be refresh their visitor visas on a 3 month basis!).
I have always enjoyed getting suits tailored in HK, and despite being (f)unemployed I decided to take advantage of Hoi An’s world famous tailors. “You have to view these things as an investment” – the idiom we both stuck to when we found ourselves investing a little too frivolously’ – without going into detail I am really happy with how my formal and casual wear (Yaly) and leather bags (Friendly Bag) have all come out. The quality of service, attention to detail and quick turnaround is the Vietnamese hard working, entrepreneurial spirit in live action. Angie was like a kid in a sweet shop, helping tailors bring to life many of her own designs, and she has become adept at haggling prices down. We may have gone a bit overboard (choosing fabrics and numerous tailoring appointments did take up a chunk of time), but the cost was a fraction of what we would pay elsewhere, and we will be the most dapper couple in the job centre when we settle down again.
Charming Homestay gave us free bicycles to explore on, but, due to heat, laziness and growing motorised vehicle confidence we treated ourselves to a pair of electric bicycles to cruise around on. I think that locally, they are the preserve of the elderly, so we attracted a few wry smiles when pulling into coffee shops, but with the ability to travel 35km or so at a steady pace without having to peddle, we were more than happy. On our bikes we explored rice fields, vegetable gardens, countryside roads (which were surprisingly well maintained) and of course the beach.
Hoi An used to boast 2 beaches, but one was sadly dilapidated in a storm two years ago, leaving Am Bang (sp) as the main coastal strip. After the slightly repetitive reggae bars of the Gili Islands, it was a welcome change to find our own tranquil beach front ‘nest’ complete with ample sitting space, a fan(!!!!!!) , and a steady flow of coffee, juices and seafood. We even had wifi. Many a day was spent in our nest, reading our books, chatting or just watching the world go by. The sea here is bath warm with medium sized waves to play around in if you want, or, sandy spots to sit down on whilst the turquoise water laps against the shore. If we ever wanted a change of scene we just hopped back on the bikes and went exploring again.
Each morning I was treated to a chat with Nhi, lots of smiles and a word or two in Vietnamese from her Mum, and a new local dish to try each day. After this we would nip to our favourite coffee shop down the street to plan the day ahead.
One day I braved a haircut, cut-throat razor shave, eye and ear lash clean at the local barbers. It was a bit disconcerting how he watched the TV throughout, but, all in all he helped sharpen up my whole look fro a few dollars, I backed out of the full head shave, maybe next time.
A few days into our trip, after careful consideration, we rented our first scooter.(sorry parents!). I’m not a particularly rapid driver, but, the larger engine gave us the chance to explore a lot further than our electric bikes did – you don’t want to be stranded and trying to peddle one of those things! One day we took the 45min coastal highway drive to Marble Mountain on the recommendation of one of the local bar owners. Lazily and due to the heat, we took the newly constructed elevator to the summit, where you can find various shrines, wind tunnels to cool off in and some rather impressive cave structures. Definitely worth the visit. It was even topped off with a plate of tamarind prawns and fried rice at the beach on the way home, whilst watching a storm come in.
Our next scooter adventure was to a small arable island 15 mins away on the public ferry from the central wet market. We crammed onto the tiny boat with everyone else ( very gratefully had assistance moving the scooter from the pier across the tiny makeshift gangplank). Upon arrival we drove randomly for miles, through beautiful countryside and along small lanes where the locals made mats for sale. The sense of freedom was at an all time high, with perfect blue skies, no fixed route and the wind in our hair. We stopped at local joints for refreshments and joined some factory girls for their rice paper and salad lunch, they gave us a lot of attention and were impressed with the minimal Vietnamese we did know.
Hoi An is not a party town, but, our evenings were still full of fun. The old town comes alive with lanterns and beautifully illuminated bridges in the evening. Perfect for strolling around, or sitting in one of the riverside roof terraces to sip on some punchy 2-4-1 cocktails. A couple of special meals thst stand out in mind are going for seafood at Cu Da (the destroyed) beach with our host Nhi, buzzing and packed to the brim, she ordered expertly ordered – giant shrimp, razor clams, clams – all freshly caught that day and prepared to perfection.
We also took a romantic boat ride along the river in the evening and lit a lantern, its not easy being English and romantic, but, managed to pull it off!
Our hosts also graciously invited us for a family feast one evening, it was very touching and heart warming for them to go to such efforts, and we all got the chance to get to know each other better and meet the other guests, a Dutch/german couple also living in HK, and a young couple from San Sebastián. The quantity and quality of dishes ( chicken with lemongrass, salad, rice. Tofu, broth, morning glory） were some of the best I have tasted in the country, and just to sit around a table, joke and converse was a real highlight of our time in the city. We helped as best we could with tidying up, but, Nhi’s mum found it a little culturally different for us to do so!
Other evenings were spent in local coffee shops with our new friend talking about local history, our lives , hopes for the future of Vietnam and trying to work out our next steps on our travels. You can ride around the deserted old town on scooters at night which has its own peaceful charm. Angie found a new vice in the local arcade, where she feverishly gambled (3quid maximum!) on the sliding coin slot machines, we gave some of our tokens to the kids who are to cute not to donate to, and we vowed never to go to Vegas together, after seeing how both draw into the thrill of gambling – must be our Asian genes.
We tried too many new dishes to name, but Hoi An is a food lovers heaven. We stuck to street food mainly, some favourites being Cau lau (noodles with pork, salad, crispy rice cake, salad) And Bahn Dep ( crispy and soft rice pancakes which you crack and dip into a fishy sauce).
I hope we can return to Hoi An one day. It was such a special place for both of us and had so much to offer. With very heavy hearts we exchanged gifts with our hosts and wished them farewell.