Hoi An: the Streets.
From Hue, we took a short ride (maybe 2 hours) to Hoi An, which was notable mostly because we drove over a mountain pass that gave us amazing views of the South China Sea, and—once we hit the top of the pass—Da Nang and it's amazing-looking beaches, including the famous "China Beach." (Famous from the Vietnam War. And TV. Probably more the latter these days, oddly enough.) Actually, the most amazing thing—to me, at least, coming from the beach-impaired Northwest corner of the US—was how long the beaches were: Hoi An is about 30 clicks (that's my Nam talk) from Da Nang, and you can walk down the beach the entire way. Sure, it would be tiring—walking through sand and all—but still, that's pretty crazy. To me. Your craziness mileage may differ.
Anyway, Hoi An. I was excited to go to Hoi An, because it was supposed to be one of those unspoiled towns that hasn't changed for hundreds of years. Which is sort of true in a way: the core old town doesn’t appear to have changed much since the Indochina days, and it is still pretty small, with a population of 80,000 or so. The downside, of course, is that everyone else knows it's supposed to be an old, unspoiled town as well, so it's something of a tourist magnet. (Well, that and it's known far and wide as the place to go for cheap tailoring. And shoe-making. And art-buying. So really, just buying in general.) So there were, to understate it slightly, about a gillion tourists passing through town at the same time we were, which radically decreased my enjoyment of said town when we first arrived.
I mean, I realize I'm a tourist as well, and while I didn't expect the place to be empty, I didn't think it would be as overrun as it was: the town seriously appeared to be about half-tourist, half-townsfolk. That's not quite true of course, but when you consider that the old-town, touristy part of Hoi An is probably only like 5 blocks by 5 blocks, I'm guessing it's not completely inaccurate. And, as a result, that part of town has naturally just evolved to cater to all those tourists, which means that pretty much every single store in that 5 x 5 area sells one of four things: tailored clothes, tailored shoes, art, or tourist t-shirts. Seriously. There were entire blocks that were all just tailors selling the exact same thing at the exact same price. It was … disheartening, I guess.
But did I hate Hoi An? No, not really. I did at first, but after a few days (we were there four nights) I grew to love it. And sure, this feeling increased greatly after we moved out of our 20 dollar a night, formaldehyde smelling room in a cheap hotel to a nicer room in a hotel that cost five or six times the price and featured a rainforest shower and horizon pool (give it up for the Hoi An Life Resort!), but that's not the reason. Well, it's not the only reason. It didn't hurt, anyway.
(Side note: it was very funny to see how the people at the two hotels reacted to our hotel-moving. We actually had the shuttle from the Life Resort drive the five or six blocks to our hotel to come pick us up--who says life as an expat is bad?--so everyone knew what was going on. The people at the first hotel clearly thought we were completely insane for staying in their hotel when we could have been staying in a much, much, much, much nicer one, while the people in the nice hotel seemed to think the same thing, but in reverse, like "why are you staying in that rat trap when you could be staying here, stupid Americans? And you wonder why you lost the war." I think they actually suspected us of being travel writers, because they seemed--even for Southeast Asia--to go out of their way to give us really good service, although maybe that's just my imagination.)
Anyway, back to Hoi An. Once you get past the hordes of obnoxious tourists—generally not from America, by the way, although many of the most obnoxious DO seem to speak English as their primary language, which is all I will say about that—Hoi An, is, as advertised, a very charming, very pretty, very sleepy city. (The recent, Michael Caine version of The Quiet American was filmed in Hoi An, so if you've seen that movie you'll know what to expect.) Mostly very early in the day, when we would go to the bakery for good bread (which is about as rare in China as the Spotted Owl is in forests around here) and there were very few tourists around, just the city-dwellers going about their morning business.
So should you go to Hoi An if you are in Vietnam? I would say definitely, although don't expect to do a lot there—you can see all the "sights" in the entire town between breakfast and lunch—so if you are pressed for time, maybe only stay a night or two. Otherwise, just wander around the city and enjoy it. Oh, and be sure to get up early—you can nap all afternoon. And evening, since nightlife is sort of lacking …
Anyway, if you DO go, and you DO wander around, this is the what you'll see. As I said, pretty as ... something. Ii'm not sure what word to use there, but these pictures will give you some idea of what I mean ...
Now looking the other direction:
Did you know China ruled Vietnam for around 1,000 years? If not, this next picture can attest to that fact:
This was the outdoor terrace at a restuarant called Brother's Cafe where we went to dinner. (Expensive for Vietnam, not for the US.) If you look the other way from this picture, you see the river. Actually, you are basically sitting right on the river bank. It was pretty. Plus, the food was realy, really good. If you like fresh, homemade spring rolls at least. Which I do, obviously:
This picture makese me laugh, but not because of the picture. It's because we were sitting across the street at one of the many bars and restaurants that are on the riverbank, all of which are filled with foreigners, and all of which are, hence, too expensive for your average Hoi An resident to eat at. So the "building" restaurants on the riverbank were filled with tourists, and the "tent" restaurants were all filled with locals. Which I would normally like to eat at, but for the most part the cooking hygiene conditions were ... well, somewhat lacking, even by my "I lived in China for almost 2 years" standards:
This is the most famous site in town--the Japanese Covered Bridge:
From the side:
Some of the art you can buy on the far side of the bridge. It would be more remarkable if the 20 or so shops immediately surrounding this one weren't all selling the exact same pieces of "original" art:
Remember how I mentioned that there just a few tailors? There were probably 150 shops in the city like this, and that number is likely low--way too low--if anything:
A more artistic picture of the same scene:
Where the tailoring magic is done. I believe the word you are searching for is "sweatshop." Seriously. This place was basically a fiberglass shed, and it was hot as hell. I was sweating something fierce, and all I was doing was standing there:
This picture made me laugh, only because this big machine seemed completely out of place. It was also blocking one of the city's major roads, although that's not saying much:
You know how you always hear about places where you shouldn't eat the ice? Most places I tend to ignore that, because odds are if the water is that bad, the locals aren't drinking it either. Or something like that. My system is more complicated than that, but I don't want to get into it right now. Either way, after seeing this, I decided that probably I would be avoiding ice in general in Hoi An. When not in my fancy resort-hotel, anyway:
About an hour later, this scene completely validated my "no ice" position:
Much more to come from Hoi An!
Previously, on my vacation:
- Hue: Zoom, Zoom.
- Hue: the River.
- Hue: the Imperial Tombs.
- Hue: the Imperial Palace.
- Hue: the Streets.
- Halong Bay: the Videos.
- Halong Bay.
- Hanoi: the Random.
- Hanoi: Water Puppets.
- Hanoi: the "Hilton."
- Hanoi: the People.
- Hanoi: Zoom, Zoom.
- Hanoi: the Streets.