March 17 – 25, 2016
Our ten-hour sleeper bus trip from Nha Trang arrives at 5:30 a.m. in Hoi An, the city of lanterns. Everything is closed, which means everything looks abandoned. Metal cages close up the entrances to really ugly square concrete buildings ten feet wide by many (3-7) stories high. The concrete buildings are usually painted poorly using cheap paint. Unflattering signs with red, blue, white or black block letters are plastered everywhere. Not just a Hoi An look, the architecture in Vietnam is not attractive. But this is Hoi An, virtually untouched by both sides during the American War and we are here to see architecture what has been sadly lost elsewhere in the country.
We threw our backpacks on as the sun was coming up and began walking through tight, cozy corridors and back alleys to find our homestay. As we walked through alleys lined with old clothes drying on fences made of rotting lumber and barbwire, crumbled concrete drains left unrepaired for years, garbage, and corrugated metal roofed homes, I started to wonder where the heck were we going to be staying. Christine in the meantime was thinking about the coolness factor of walking aimlessly through the passageways. I honestly never knew she had that sense of adventure! Who kidnapped my wife?
As it turns out, our homestay was awesome and just a ten-minute walk to the historic old town of Hoi An. As our homestay host rubbed the sleep out of her eyes at 6:00am, we dropped our bags and said see ya around noon for check-in, a shower and an afternoon siesta. (I did not get a wink of sleep on the “sleeper bus”).
We walk to the historic old town. It is 6:30 am, the sun reflects off the Thu Bon river and it finally happened … goose bumps … and not just once. By the time we find a place open at 8:00 a.m. for breakfast, I had goose bump attacks at least five times. Christine was smiling from ear to ear and we knew we finally arrived at a special place warranting our time to visit and remember.
Hoi An was under French rule. It was a major trading port for Chinese and Japanese for 400 years (15-19th Century). As a result, the architecture is European French mixed in with Chinese, Japanese jaw dropping gorgeousness. Buildings are painted yellow. Some walls have moss growing and paint peeling from years and years of moisture and abuse. Hand carved wood shutters frame the windows, wood slat boards close off the fronts of homes/shops and lanterns of various shapes, sizes and color hang from building to building. Exhausted from our bus trip, wandering from 5:30 to 8:00am, and checking out the morning market, we settle in at a nice little restaurant on the river front, order our Matcha tea latte (a special treat warranted after a very long night) and watch the town literally come to life as everyone comes out to begin their day.
I take a photo of the boats on the river and send it to my friend in Malaysia, “OMG, this place reminds me of Venice where we met for coffee in 2004”. He instantly replies “that does look like Venice”.
The city is very, very smart at keeping the tourists happy. The old town is designated scooter free/traffic free between 9:00am and 11:00am and then again from 6:00pm to 9:00pm. We walk to the old quarter between those hours just to escape the constant sound of “beep beep”. Atmospheric music is piped in over speakers throughout the old town. In the evening, the lanterns light up, the streets come alive with people meandering hand-in-hand and the goose bumps fire from head to toe. Young children, and young and old ladies line the streets along the river selling coloured paper lanterns with wax candles to float down the river. Not even the rabbit sized rats running along the river bank ruin the ambiance. Hoi An has been voted the most romantic city in Asia and it is super easy to see why.
There are other reasons to visit this area as well. We jumped on bikes and spent a day riding through beautiful rice fields. What felt like stepping back in time from the city, just a few kilometres brought us out into the country where water buffalo roamed, Vietnamese people worked the fields, straw cone hats protected them from the sun’s rays and bamboo bridges connected one water soaked field to the other. Several kilometres further and we were at the ocean. Sand lined beaches and a refreshing breeze made the day complete. Hoi An has it all.
Hoi An is not without its faults. This place is a tourist trap which corresponds with overpriced restaurants, tacky tourist stands selling a lot of stuff I can’t believe people actually buy, locals desperate to earn a bit of the tourist dollar hound shoppers as they pass, tailor shops are EVERYWHERE. If you like shopping for clothes and having them hand made within 24 hours, this is the place for you. We hear these tailors can copy any design you want … a suit, dress, overcoat … brand name anything.
We discover a phenomenal and super cheap restaurant outside of old town that brought us back again and again. We enjoy local specialities such as White Rose dumplings, Pho, a variety of noodle soups, fresh veggie rolls, Cao Lau, 3000 Dong (0.20Cdn) daily brewed ice cold beer (Bia Hoi). We discovered “banana pancakes” and they were very close to the yummy chocolate chip pancakes with maple syrup experience in Vermont, US. We pretend to shop and take photos of items we would buy if we were not backpacking and having to carry the items on our back. Yes, there were a few lanterns in our shopping cart!
But the best purchase of all, the extra five days we added onto our visit to hang out in Hoi An before moving on to the next destination.
Goose pimply… Mark and Christine
Sample Expenses for Hoi An (all in Vietnamese Dong, $1 Canadian = 16,000 dong)
- Breakfast included in stay (awesome Muesli, fruit, yogurt, lemon tea. Or banana pancakes. Owner also gave us Cassava pancake (coconut, nuts)).
- 235,000 breakfast (splurge while exhausted after night bus which arrived at 5:30am (2 green tea lattes, eggs Benedict and an omelette at the river side.))
- 140,000 dinner (amazing vegetarian food (curried veggies, grilled eggplant with garlic and peanuts, fried garlic rice, fresh veggie packed veggie rolls, 4 fresh beer (which were only 3000 each))
- 113,000 dinner (2 fresh beer, tofu veggies, pumpkin and peanuts, fried rice, banana chocolate ice cream)
- 99,000 dinner (2 fresh beer 3000 each, spring rolls, pho 39,000, spicy noodle soup 29,000)
- 130,000 lunch (2 fresh beer, papaya salad 39000, spicy cucumber salad 39000, ginger fried rice with salad 39000)
- 230,000 dinner (95000 chicken burger, 75,000 veggie burger, cold green tea 25,000 and 35,000 Saigon beer at river side)
- 20,000 Sprite
- 30,000 big water 5L
- 17 (double) and 21 (twin) USD/night Sun Homestay with free breakfast
- 500,000 sleeper bus to Hoi An
- 240,000 for old town, historic building pass for 2 adults
- 50,000 for 2 bike rentals for 1 day, from homestay
- ATM withdrawal of 2,000,000 dong cost $122.11 Canadian