Hanging out in Hoi An
Having just spent far too long in Nha Trang than was justified, any more than a day in my opinion, I was happy to drag myself off the express train as it pulled into Da Nang Station. This was not my destination however and I still needed to backtrack thirty or so kilometres south along the coast to the ancient town of Hoi An.
As you exit the train the assault of the taxi drivers begins. I was looking for two things; a Mai Linh taxi, for the metered fare, and other backpackers to share the cost. Having found both we were soon on the road out of Da Nang passing the much hyped China Beach and the less hyped mega hotel and resort constructions that were scarring the once pristine coastline.
An uneventful thirty minutes later we had arrived at the new centre are of Hoi An and my hotel of choice. I had elected for a private room for this city at the Dai Long, a small budget guesthouse on the backpacker circle that was only a few doors away from the Hop Yen hostel. It was a great move as the A/C was already running and my passport was winging its way to a visa extension the moment it hit the front desk.
Once again it was steaming; the temperature in the thirties and you could feel the humidity in the air. That didn’t stop me from exploring though and I set off map in hand to wander the streets of this ancient town. You have to navigate the usual hustle of taxis and vendors but it was a breeze compared to Nha Trang.
The streets were a wonderful mix of leafy lanes and exquisite old buildings, a plethora of tailor shops (Hoi An is the de facto capital of tailoring in Vietnam) and cute cafes. The city runs a scheme whereby visitors need to pay up just to be in the streets of the ancient quarter; the ticket runs for twenty four hours and includes entrance to five museums/temples/sights. I bought one anyway as I wanted to see the family temples however I wondered how many tourists bought a ticket to wander the streets?
At the time of writing the roads were all being dug up for resurfacing, this was of course a bit of a pain however it did have the advantage of limiting the traffic so walking around was pretty easy. The buildings were a great mix of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese architecture that created a very exotic look with each building different from the others, a sharp contrast with the regular shop houses we normally see.
The family temples were interesting affairs; lotus tea is sometimes served along with sugared coconut slices, a family member will show you around pointing out the details of the different ethnic styles employed in the building and finally you are prompted to buy some hand made goods or souvenirs. It is not a hard sell by any means and no offence is taken if you leave without shelling out more dong.
One of the main attractions is the Japanese bridge, built in 1593 to encourage trade with the Chinese quarter. A ticket is required to pass through it although it is most photogenic from the outside.
I was happy to revel in the atmosphere and people watch from the shade of a cafe; reading a paper and drinking a Vietnamese coffee with a croissant slowing down completely from the dynamic of the tourist trail.
I am sometimes known to indulge in a beer or two, frequent readers may have noticed a pattern here, and often endeavour to search out the best deals around. Hoi An was no exception for the cheap but thirsty, Bia Hoi abound on the waterfront, plastic stools under a tarpaulin shade perfect for a cold one in the afternoon. Dotted along the riverside are also small cafes offering local specialities Cao Lau and Banh Bao along with ice cold Hoi An beer for 4,000 Dong (25c) a glass.
I had arranged to meet up with three friends from the USA, girls who love to shop so Hoi An was a dream for them. We proceeded to bar crawl along the riverside taking a glass of beer at each location until finally sitting down at a great little cafe, the Restaurant du Port, with a four course menu and a wonderful owner called Nam who was happy to keep us in cold Tiger beer until the lights went out!
The next day, after the heat of the town, I was ready for some beach action and hired a motorbike to cruise around the coast. The traffic was fairly tame in town and petered out once I got closer to the beach so it made for a comfortable ride around taking in the local farmers drying the crops by the side of the road, happy to indulge in a smile and a wave.
I had been recommended a hangout called “Phatties on the beach”, with cold beers and a mix of Vietnamese and western foods. The beach here is well worth it; I was at An Bang, a few kilometres up the road from Cua Dai (the most favoured beach) out of reach of the beach hawkers and blissfully quiet sharing the white sands with a few sunbathers and a handful of locals in their coracles.
Hoi An is a favourite on the Vietnam circuit and it is easy to see why. With such charm and character it beguiles the traveller into staying a day or so longer than anticipated, a tempting oasis on a packed itinerary.