So my whistle-stop tour of Vietnam continues and once again I find myself thinking about how someday I will have to come back to visit this fantastic country at a more relaxed pace.
Hoi An has been the perfect counterpoint to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and my outdoor adventures on Cat Ba Island. It is also a place that I probably shouldn’t like. Once one of the busiest trading ports in S.E.Asia, its importance declined after its waterways began to silt up, until its global reputation grew again on the back of its status as a tourist hot-spot. And make no mistake, Hoi An is a tourist town.
The old houses are almost all exclusively bars or restaurants aimed at tourists, or clothes and shoe shops aimed at tourists. (Hoi An has a reputation as the place to come to get custom-made tailored clothes – anything from shoes to suits to dresses to bags to pretty much anything you can sew together and wear) the place is crawling with Western and Chinese tourists. You will hawkers offering you banana fritters on seemingly each street corner, as do the normal large numbers of moto-taxis and at night along the riverside you will be offered floating candles to release into the water (with outrageous opening prices). But somehow despite all this, it rarely feels intrusive. The whole place has such a relaxed atmosphere that it even seems to have seeped into the nick-nak hawkers. Yes they will offer their wares and services to you, but say no, or express no interest, and the will leave you in peace.
It probably also helps that the buildings, and the setting along the river are beautiful. I love the yellow of the buildings here, especially where it has started to peel and fade to black with age and dirt. Having visited without first seeing any photos of the place it was not something I was expecting and I’m sure I will now always remember Hoi An when I see that shade again. The faded beauty of the buildings is I think what somehow makes the place feel more genuine and allows me to forget all the tourist paraphernalia that accompanies it. In China I can’t help but think they would have rebuilt all these buildings, leaving them in perfect condition, but also looking fake and “new” and in the end spoiling what they were seeking to protect, which is something I felt Pingyao was guilty of.
If you want to get some clothes here, or go to the beach, or see ruined temples you can do, and if it’s the right season you can even do diving, but me, I love this place and I’ve done none of those things. Hoi An has achieved what for me is a rare achievement on this trip of being a place where I’ve been perfectly happy to do absolutely nothing in, and yet perfectly happy to stay for as long as possible. Alas, there is still much more of S.E.Asia to see, so too soon I find myself having to leave. But I can definitely put Hoi An together with Cat Ba Island) as two very powerful reasons for returning to Vietnam someday. On my last full day even the weather decided to co-operate. I was starting to forget how blue the skies can appear!
I came to Hoi An from Hue, which I found somewhat underwhelming (although that might be because I spent the whole time in a downpour trying to convince myself that I probably couldn’t get anymore wet if I stayed out in the rain exploring. It turned out I was wrong…)
As is my habit, I shunned the direct bus to Hoi An to instead take a more circuitous route, via train to Da Nang and then hopping on a local bus for an hours slow trundle down to Hoi An. The views from the train ride are really quite special, although the fight for space by the open window in the end of the carriage meant taking good photos was difficult. It was only a two and a half hour journey, which was a good thing, as by the time I got tickets (literally just before the train departed) the only spaces left were in hard seat class. They aren’t kidding when they say hard seats…
It is perhaps obvious, although not something that actually occurred to me until half way through the journey, but the best scenery is on the coast side of the track, so try to sit accordingly. Your ticket will come with a numbered seat, but especially if you are in hard class you should find enough space, to sit appropriately if your booked seats are on the other side.