I admit that second only to Myanmar, Hoi An was my most anticipated stop on my itinerary. Alessio, searching for his “Grail” trainers, was hoping he could also get a pair made there. When we talked about our stops in Vietnam, it was clear the one that mattered most was certainly Hoi An.
We arrived in Hoi An from a sleeper train down from Hanoi. It was a blissful and enjoyable sleep – so the seventeen hour journey really only felt like four. It stops in Da Nang, but our homestay provided a transfer from the train station for about 300,000 dong.
Our homestay was a bit of a poor pick, solely because it was such a walk from the ancient city. It was between the city and An Bang beach – 25 minutes to the city and an hour to the beach. Otherwise, they were very very friendly and eager. Almost too much so, as they always wanted to arrange something for us and didn’t speak a lot of English to understand things we didn’t want.
On the way to the old city is a great restaurant called Mamma’s Gourmet Cooking School. True to the name, you can cook a dish, but we just wanted to eat. Mostly because Alessio wanted to search for his grail sneakers. I ordered caramelised pork in a clay pot, and Alessio took a lemongrass and sesame pork. It came with a large bowl of salad, a plate of rice and some sheets of rice paper. The food was great, and the environment really lovely.
Our next quest was Ale’s shoes. I’ll say it from now, we didn’t find them. He searched the whole day and every place told him the shoes were too complex to be hand sewn. In one place, they offered him something “similar” to the flashy gold sneakers he was searching for – blue leather shoes! Every time he thought he was getting close to finding them, the same old story would happen and he’d be told no. Let it be a lesson: they really can make a lot of things – but choose simple garments. Don’t provide a picture of Beyoncé’s Bow Down costume and expect the tailors to be able to produce anything like it. They are talented, but with three days they’re not magicians. I considered getting a pair of lace up ankle boots like the purple suede ones I saw but I changed my mind as nothing could really inspire me. That ended our quest for tailored clothes!
We continued to walk around the ancient city in no real direction, taking in the Japanese Bridge and crossing over to the other side where there’s a few restaurants and a little market. When we crossed back, we were forbidden from walking through a few streets we’d already walked down because we didn’t have a ticket.
This ticket is around 120,000 dong and it allows you free reign of the ancient city and access to a few museums, assembly halls, old maintained houses and other sites. I would have liked to have seen a few of the sites, but in the end we didn’t pay for the ticket and it didn’t cause a lot of problems when walking around.
By night the city lights up with lanterns and the river looks like something from tangled. It’s truly beautiful.
For another side of things, there’s the nearby An Bang beach which we walked to the following day.
Cui Dai beach is nearby and pretty horrible. It’s been massively eroded so there’s about two centimetres of beach and every last bit of it is taken up by sunloungers that you have to pay for – and the women will hassle you to buy one straight away, or coerce you into the restaurant when you walk away. The sunloungers overlook sandbags, not sea so it’s overall just a bit grotty. We spent less than five minutes there.
If you walk fifteen, twenty minutes more you can reach An Bang beach. By no stretch of the imagination is it anything like what you can find in the Thai and Cambodian islands – or even nearby in Da Nang but it’s a beach and it’s so much nicer than Cui Dai. I’d even go to Cui Dai first just so it feels like a really nice beach. The waves are great for surfing, but the sand is fairly littered. I was only hassled by a hawker once and she went away when I wouldn’t stop pretending to take selfies.
By the time we were walking home the weather turned, the clouds thickened and we were sure we wouldn’t make it home before the rain. We did, luckily, but the next day was a wash out. All we could do was brave the rain to walk to a nearby restaurant – and the food we ordered came on a delivery motorbike!
Earlier in the day our homestay had asked us if we wanted dinner. We said no, we were joining friends for dinner. Yet at 7pm…
It was very kind of them, but we guessed they hadn’t understood our refusal. It put us in a tricky position as we were still meeting our friends from Sapa and I don’t eat beef, so Alessio had to eat both meals because he (is greedy) didn’t want to offend them.
We still met our friends from Sapa, but a bit later. By this time, the restaurants had begun to close. We found one restaurant that met all our diverse dietary needs (kosher, no wheat, no beef) and it was really quite something.
The waiter, who possibly also owned the restaurant, communicated in grunts and shrugs. Our menus were thrown down and he appeared a minute or two later expecting us to already know what we want. This is usual throughout Asia, but when we told him we needed a lot more time to decide, he shrugged and only moved a few centimetres away. Our friend showed him a note written in Vietnamese that she cannot eat wheat, he almost refused to read it.
The meal was decent, not outstanding like the menu had suggested. Our plates were promptly cleared away, and immediately the bill was thrown down. A very clear message that we needed to clear off. Then, to our surprise and hilarity, we were given a guestbook to sign! The worst service in my life and he wanted feedback. We replied in our own languages about what we thought, along the lines of “it was certainly something…”
Our final day before leaving for Da Nang brought another eventuality. First the air con wouldn’t switch on. Then the television. There was no wifi, and nothing would charge. When we raised it with the homestay, they told us they also had no electricity. The whole town was down.
When we walked into the city and finally found the one restaurant with a vaguely unique menu, we couldn’t order anything we wanted because there was no electricity. We moved next door where we found some dishes that could be made without power. For a city whose main appeal is the lights at night, we were surprised how long they took to switch on the lights!
I wanted to buy some souvenirs – something I hadn’t wanted to do the whole trip. The cheapy mass produced handicrafts were really quite nice, but you can also get a few unique things and there’s a shop, Lifestart which sells gifts and the money goes to giving opportunities to disabled children. Hoi An is a nice place to get gifts, and we bought chopsticks and a bowl to decorate our flat.
In the evening, when the power returned, we walked to a restaurant we passed every night, and every time we passed it we said it looks cute but we never entered. This was the place I chose to try Cao Lau – a dish of thick noodles, thinly sliced pork and salad leaves in a thick pork broth. It’s a dish only available in Hoi An, and intensely tied to the history and culture of the city.
My time in Hoi An was very beautiful, but not a lot like what I expected. It’s very busy and crowded, with many Vietnamese tourists when I visited. The city is definitely magical, but maybe I overhyped it in my mind because I walked around thinking “yeah it’s nice” but not a lot else. I didn’t fall in love. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t wonderful. In fact, it was straight out of a fairy tale. I could spend days taking pictures and there’s a lot more to do that we didn’t do. It’s just that when you expect to love something, you usually do, but it doesn’t take your breath away like something you fall in love with by surprise.