I wanted to go to Hoi An for years. I heard good things from the internet, from guide books, from family and acquaintances. They spoke wistfully of its charm, its magic, the lanterns, the romance. They said it was an easy place to be and that I would want to stay longer. In my imagination Hoi An was a quaint and quiet town encased in peace and rice fields.
But things are never what I expect them to be.
Once we get settled in our hotel, we take the free-rental bicycles to the old town, a 15 minute ride away. The streets are thick with cars and scooters, bright lights and street-side commerce. It’s stressful to bicycle - too busy - and our bikes have no bells or lights. It’s dark and difficult to navigate the traffic whizzing and honking.
The old town itself is vehicle-free as stated but the lanes are jam-packed with tourists. The place has a Disneyland feel with its lit-up bridge, its crowded canal of boats, its hawkers, the tourists, the selfie-sticks, the night ‘market’ of tacky souvenirs and bad-looking ‘Vietnamese’ food. Hoi An is a joke. What happened to the Hoi An I heard so much about?
Over the next days, talking to locals, we find out. In recent years, more and more tourists (mostly Chinese and Korean) are coming over by the busload - taking full-day trips from neighbouring big-city Danang. There are more visitors now than the town can handle. One can barely squeeze by on the old Japanese Bridge. I hold Tim’s hand because there’s a possibility I’ll lose him in these crowds. Old Hoi An is a Unesco Heritage Site but the only time you can see the beautiful old buildings is early in the morning, before the hordes arrive. We wake at 5:30 one day and, after coffee, head there again. I do some painting and Tim takes photos, but even then the town is a bit sad - like the day after a fun fair - dirty and garbage-filled.
In the days that come we drive outside the old town into rice fields, little neighbourhoods, riverside dwellings - places where there are surprisingly no tourists and life goes on as usual. We go to the beach and have delectable and well-priced seafood. The water is lovely, the ocean breeze strong. We sit in loungers owned by a restaurant whose kitchen is off the beach somewhere. Our orders taken, the girl bicycles off to wherever that kitchen is and comes back (a long time) later balancing a tray with drinks and food in one hand while riding a bike down a bumpy dirt path!
I spend a lot of time on the back of a motorbike. It seems like the right mode of transport here - more power to keep up with the flow of traffic and cover the distances - from town to beach - that this city requires. Riding around is one of my favourite things but I find using the second-hand rental helmets unappealing so I buy my own on the side of the road. It’s pink and I’m set! We spend our days exploring.
We find quiet riverside paths lined with rice fields where water buffalo and egrets keep each other company. We see fishermen and women standing in their small boats with their nets and poles. We see small markets where women squat with their silvery fish and baskets of eggs. Hanoi was hot but here it feels tropical. There are fragrant flowers and fruits, salamanders and cockroaches (my nemesis). It gets hot by 9 am and the temperature reads 38 / feels-like 44.
We visit a nearby village known for its vegetable gardens. We see orderly well-tended plots of mustard, green onion, lettuce, mint, lemon balm, basil - all the things I like - and other Vietnamese herbs used in so many of their dishes. Women in their conical hats crouch in the green, bent over to weed. A man in bare feet waters the plots with an ingenious contraption made of two huge watering cans joined by a bar held on his shoulders.
We drive to a pottery village at dusk and go kayaking on the river in the morning. We find an amazing cafe with loungers on the beach. We settle in. The water feels clean and is the perfect temperature. I decide it doesn’t get much better than this. We try going to the old town again but it is just as busy as the first night and our parked bicycles get trapped in the crowds and nearly pushed into the river by the press of people.
The food is good here. It’s a refreshing change from Tam Coc, where we ate badly. Here there are lots of healthy and interesting options. We eat seafood on the beach - prawns with cashew and chilli and fish in banana leaf with ginger. We try the Hoi An specialities - rice flour dumplings with shrimp (White rose / Banh Vac), crispy filled rice crepes with fresh herbs (Banh Xeo), noodles with pork (Cau Lau), thicker noodles with shrimp and quail eggs (Mi Quang) and Hoi An spring-rolls. We also have clams with lemongrass, papaya salad, tofu curry, and lots of fresh fruit juice. We eat some excellent fusion food and drink killer espressos. We finally have a good Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguette sandwich) at the market by our place. We buy fruit from the same market - lychees, rambutan, rose apple, dragonfruit. We drink lots of passion fruit juice and use chopsticks at every meal.
I get dental work done ($47 for a cleaning and 2 fillings!) and I get eye glasses made. I hang by the pool and swim in the ocean. It feels like we’re on vacation. Nothing like the beach to make me feel so relaxed and dreamy.
This place feels a bit like Ubud - a sophisticated international hub with lots of good food, too much traffic and too many tourists. The old town is dead but if you look beyond you’ll find the real old town. Hoi An lives on, its old ways surprisingly intact. There’s still lots of magic here and yes, I’d like to stay longer.