The Ancient Town of Hoi An
We arrived in Hoi An on the back of a motorbike after a six day Easy Rider tour from Dalat. While the return to a bustling town was somewhat welcomed, we realised with resignation that we would be left to fend for ourselves again. This meant instead of traipsing the town like a local, we were lumped back into the tourist category, wandering the city trying to make sense of it all.
Hoi An boasts one of the most well preserved UNESCO listed heritage areas in Southeast Asia. Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, Hoi An was well utilised with a steady stream of international traffic using the strategic location of the port as a trading hub. Much of the old city has obvious Chinese and Japanese influences after many of the early traders from these countries eventually settled in Hoi An.
For us, we were a bit underwhelmed by the town. We stayed in the Hoi An Ancient Town and while the architecture was beautiful, we found the town had little more to offer. In my opinion, it would be a better place to visit on a different kind of trip. Best known for the quick, cost effective tailoring and hand made leather goods (including beautiful shoes and handbags), I could easily get lost in the town if I was travelling for two or three weeks and had space in my bag (note the use of ‘bag’ rather than ‘backpack’) for all the shopping.
We stayed at the Hoi Pho Hotel, which suited us perfectly. It was a great location, nice and close to the Ancient Town that meant we didn’t have to wander far to be in and amongst it all.
After a week of over-indulging on beautiful local food while we toured with Hong and An we were back to ordering for ourselves. It was amazing to have the opportunity to eat with them. We travelled to various restaurants and tried their specialities, which is really only possible if you speak the language. We are now armed with a few new Vietnamese words that will hopefully help us order a few more local dishes. We have, however, stuck faithful to the noodle soup, eating it at least once a day and it continues to be delicious.
Hoi An has a few well-known food specialities. The Com Ga, or chicken rice, is served everywhere and each place puts it’s own special twist on the meal. We had a lovely Com Ga while people watching at the Japanese Bridge. It was served with a beautiful chilli jam that we found really added to the dish. Another common dish we saw everywhere is Cao Lau, a special noodle that is almost only found in Hoi An. When making Cao Lau, they must take water from Ba Le well (which is 1000 years old), rice that has been soaked in ash water from Cham Island and the vegetables must be from the Tra Que organic vegetable village. Quite a process and the result is well worth the effort! Jimmy tried a Banh Mi, a speciality sandwich with a whole variety of sauces that apparently make it one of the best sandwiches in the world.
When we arrived in Hoi An, I noticed people selling Banh Xoai on every corner. In English, they are called mango cakes so when I tried one naturally I expected mango inside. Instead, the sticky rice is stuffed with a sweet peanut mix. I really enjoyed them and started to crave one after every meal! Lastly, we tried Banh Bao Vac, or white rose. These are a special kind of dumpling made with rice paper with a dollop of meat in the middle. When cooked, the outer parts of the rice paper looks like rose petals, with the meat sitting perfectly in the middle. Quite an enjoyable dish and well worth trying.
ACTIVITIES & ATTRACTIONS
As per usual, we spent a day traipsing around Hoi An checking out the various main attractions. After a few hours of wandering, we had ticked of majority of the Ancient Town, including the Japanese Covered Bridge, Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation, Phuc Kien Assemby Hall, and the Quang Trieu Assembly Hall. While these were the buildings we considered main attractions, all the other old houses and streets are great to explore too. A bit of a trick here, if you go out early (before 8.30am) you can get into a few of the main attractions without a ticket and also beat the crowds.
Jimmy did a sunrise photography tour at the Hoi An Photo Tour & Workshop. An early start, they were taken to the fishing village just outside of Hoi An. Unfortunately, the rough seas, poor weather and Lunar New Year meant there was very little ‘action’. After breakfast and a coffee, they wandered the local community and Jimmy relished in the opportunity to practice his portrait photography. He particularly enjoyed being invited into an elderly couples house to watch their daily routine, which largely involved preparing cakes to be sold at the markets. We have dedicated a photo blog for the Faces of Vietnam and there are a couple of photos from the morning tour feature in this blog.
PEOPLE & CULTURE
After six days through rural Vietnam, it was almost a bit of a culture shock to return to the hustle and bustle of the touristy Hoi An. Everyone was pushing to sell us things, especially the ladies carrying fruit baskets over their shoulders. When we refused to buy fruit, they would say “photo, photo” before posing. When we continued to refuse, they would try and force me to carry their baskets and pose alongside me for a photo. While these photo opportunities could be looked upon as being quite unique, nothing is free and they would expect payment afterwards. Perhaps being approached in this manner would be alright if it happened once a day, but every 100m down the road a new lady would try the same act. It became quite tiresome after a day or so.
WHAT WE LEARNT
The re-exposure to the touristy environment after nearly a week without seeing another westerner came at a bit of a shock. We learnt a lot about the country, Vietnamese culture and customs on our Easy Rider trip from Dalat, but when we arrived in Hoi An we were just another couple of tourists checking out the city. It certainly took a day to readjust.
After nearly a month of travel in Vietnam we feel pretty clued up on the standard scams and are aware of the price mark up for tourists, but for some reason it irritated us a lot more here. With such a heavy tourism market, even street food had a tourist price. We have learnt to walk away and 95% of the time they will yell out the local price as we are leaving. Imagine the uproar if people started charging tourists more at home!
After the Easy Rider tour our budget has been well blown. We have accepted this, treated it as a learning experience and have moved on (with lighter pockets). We are still sticking to a daily food and accommodation budget with ease; we just didn’t expect the activities to be so costly.
With Lunar New Year, we have had to plan a bit more in advance than usual. We’ve booked a bus ticket to Hue with a connecting ticket to Hanoi two days later. It has cost us a small fortune to get to Hanoi as the cost of travel rises significantly with everyone travelling home to see their family. When we arrive in Hanoi (the night before Lunar New Year) we will be able to assess our options for our remaining time in Vietnam. Luckily, we have a few extra days up our sleeve so if everything shuts down for the Lunar New Year we should be able to spend some time relaxing in Hanoi.