The Travelling Hôi Polloi of Hôi An
We don’t so much step off the bus as slough off it, dragging our bags, feet and willpower behind. The drive from Dà Lat is longer than the total door-to-door journey from my home in England to my job in Korea, and I can only marvel at the possibly amphetamine-fuelled stamina of our driver.
It’s dawn in Dà Nãng, and the bus terminal is deserted save for a few highly optimistic taxi motorbikes. 4am is the sort of time where you have to flip a coin to decide if there’s even any point in sleeping, but we decided to give it a go as there was yet another (blessedly shorter) bus ride to Hôi An itself. We hit up the nearest motel, pleasantly surprised at the cost of a bed – and discover upon a rude awakening shortly afterwards that they’d conveniently forgotten to mention that we were charged for a whole hour’s rest, rather than the full night. With just enough energy to curse our host and his forefathers, we gave up and poured ourselves onto the day’s first bus.
After a quick coma to recharge at our homestay, we ventured into Hôi An’s Old Town and were instantly thrown back in time. Once you block out the forest of selfie-sticks and the perpetual catwalk of socks-with-Birkenstocks on display, it’s hard not to be drawn into the weathered charm of the town.
Cobblestoned streets and razor-thin alleys weave around the harbourside in an intricate web that, after four days, I only just about started to familiarise myself with. Hôi An is not a large town by any means – you could walk from end to end of the main town area in about ten minutes – but what it lacks in metropolitan hustle it more than makes up for in old-world marketplace bustle. These were not roads designed for anything as modern as an automobile.
Daytime Hôi An is a historical scene, but at nightfall it is transformed into an iridescent sea of lanterns criss-crossing the streets and floating down its harbour. The bridges connecting the town’s multiple islands become dense with people making their way to and from any of the thousand restaurants and bars on offer, or stopping at the edge to watch illuminated boats drifting lazily downstream. Hang around until the later/earlier hours and you’ll finally have the streets to yourself, with the gentle sound of piped classical music drifting in and out of the Old Town’s labyrinthine nooks and crannies.
You could easily while away your whole time in the town, gorging on banh mi and Vietnamese coffee – but, as always seems to be the case, to get the most out of the area you have to get on a bike. We set our signs on the ruined holy city of My Son (pronounced ‘mee shun’), about an hour’s drive southwest of Hôi An. Of course, because we’d decided that this was our confirmed plan, this was the specific day that a monsoon storm hit central Vietnam.
Not ones to be deterred from a plan, however, we set out into the horizontal deluge with determination. It would be an exaggeration to say that I enjoyed the drive, but on the upside I gained a newfound appreciation for how it feels not to be slapped in the face by surprisingly sharp water for an hour. Helpfully, the rain abated just as soon as we parked the bike and could actually access an umbrella.
Had we more time to spare on our long-term trip, I could easily have settled into the groove of Hôi An. The perfect lazy day in the city for me would consist of the following:
– Breakfast at your hostel/homestay: we stayed at two different places, both of which had the most unbelievable breakfast options on request. I don’t even care how much it literally caters to Western tourists, the banana pancakes at both Chit Kem Homestay and Golden Bee were borderline narcotic in their appeal.
– Morning/afternoon: walk either with purpose or totally aimlessly through the Old Town – while I passed the same streets often while navigating the maze of Hôi An, I never took the same route twice. Explore the stomach-suckingly tight side alleys and see where they take you; I discovered a small lake, a well and a tree covered in bird cages on three separate wanders, and then immediately lost them when I tried to find them again. I suspect magic may be involved.
– Lunch: if I’ve learned one thing from traveling, it’s that you don’t have to spend much to get a good lunch in South East Asia; if anything, the best meals we’ve had have been the ones we barely spent anything on. Get yourself a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich (Banh Mi Queen or the Old Town markets) or try some Cao Lâu, a local speciality dish of noodles and pork.
– Afternoon: hide from the sun. Especially in the summer months, it gets deliriously hot and even the locals start to moan about the heat as much as this flaky Englishman.
– Evening: you don’t need TripAdvisor to find a fantastic eatery. Wherever you are in the town, you’ll find your new favourite restaurant every night. One of our favourites was Cafe 43 – one of the longest-running spots in town, we also took a cooking class there to learn three of our favourite dishes: papaya and prawn salad (one of the few salads I’d actually get excited about), lemongrass tofu and fried morning glory – possibly the simplest dish in Vietnamese cuisine, but one that I plan to cook with almost every meal I make at home from now on.
It may be a bit of a tourist hotspot, but you can‘t not visit Hôi An if you’re traveling Vietnam. Fans of the UK series Top Gear may recognise the streets where Clarkson, Hammond and May outfitted themselves in aesthetically violent tailored suits; the town is famous for its rapid and cheap tailoring services, and had I the spare funds I would absolutely have walked away with a $60 three-piece suit. Meg walked away with a custom-made dress (modelled after Katniss Everdeen’s wardrobe from the opening scene of The Hunger Games) while I proudly had my weathered old sandals repaired.
Our stay wasn’t without its tragedies, however. Whilst attempting a scenic cycle of the surrounding coconut forests, we had to skid to a halt next to a tiny, wailing kitten on the road that had clearly been hit by an inattentive motorist. Under the apparently amused scrutiny of the local cafe patrons, we scooped up the little thing and made an immediate beeline back to town to find a vet, but sadly his tiny heart gave out a few minutes later while bundled in my shirt in the bike basket. We gave him a bit of a funerary ceremony in a coconut thicket next to the fields, on a bed of Vietnamese peach blossom, and posthumously named him Marumi after the flower itself. It may have been a slightly ridiculous effort, but neither of us has the slightest willpower when it comes to animals, and it seemed the right thing to do.
Despite the rapid pace of life in every Vietnamese city, it’s hard to feel too rushed in Hôi An – but, as is always the case, we must indeed continue rushing northwards. We have just a short stop in Hue to look forward to on the road to Hanoi, and only a four-hour bus ride to do so.
I’ve folded myself into my seat, I’ve got my headphones in and I’m just about to finish this blog post. There’s a farmer outside struggling with an argumentative cow.