Falling in love with Hoi An, Vietnam is an easy thing to do. Effortless really. So much so that all it took was a brief walk through the stone streets of this old French town to have my heart aching with love. I had been wanting to visit Hoi An for years after seeing photos of it in a magazine or online (I can’t remember which), and was incredibly happy to discover that the city is even more beautiful in person.
The best thing about getting here at the exact time I did, is that I was given a little advice about what to eat from Becky and Dave back in Nha Trang. After finding a place to sleep, my second order of business was to order some Cao Lau, which is a noodle dish only found in Hoi An. Okay that might not be 100% accurate (since you can find a recipe online), but it is the dish the city is famous for and you at least won’t find it anywhere else in Vietnam. Trust me… I checked. Anyway, I found this adorable floating restaurant and plopped down to experience a dish that had been mighty hyped by my friends. Luckily it didn’t disappoint. Everything about this dish was enjoyable from the thick noodles to the leafy greens and herbs used to season it. I was in love with yet another thing Hoi An had to offer, and found myself enjoying this dish a lot during my week-long stay.
I didn’t do much else this first day beside walk around town and eat. I had arrived close to early afternoon, so I had missed the peak part of the day to do more touristy activities, which ultimately I’m okay with since I had a chance to get a feel for the city and find my way around and back to my hotel. All in all I had a great introduction to one of my favorite cities in Vietnam.
I found myself waking up close to noon thanks to the light blocking balcony doors in my room. It really wasn’t a problem, since after all I was on vacation, but I had plenty of time to sleep back home where there was less cool stuff to do so I was a little annoyed at the time I had lost. After a quick shower I was finally ready to go out a see a little more of Hoi An. I also wanted to take a few pictures, since I had left my camera in my hotel room the first day. It had become a habit after my week in Nha Trang, and I was determined to end it. After I found some place to grab a bite to eat, I found myself wandering down alleys and side streets, walking along the Japanese covered bridge, and taking a stroll by the canal front.
As I walked around like the tourist I am, snapping pictures and probably looking lost more than once as I changed directions sporadically, I found myself being compelled into one of the most adorable tea houses I’ve ever seen. To be fair, I haven’t seen very many, but I imagine this one would still be a contender if I had. It’s called the Reaching Out Tea House, and it’s staff as all deaf which means they encourage silence and use little blocks with written words on them as a way to communicate about the tea.
I followed up my relaxing time in the tea house with a little stroll over the dragon lit bridge to view the famous Hoi An lanterns, and to do a little window shopping for gifts. Now, when I say that Hoi An is famous for its lanterns, I’m not lying. They’re everywhere. This one particular section of Hoi An I’m speaking of however, is where they’re all displayed and sold at an outdoor night market. They are by far the most popular attraction at this little night market (which is really just a street lined with carts normally seen scattered about town the rest of the day), so it took a little patience with both the crowds and my camera to get any resemblance of a good photo. I’m not a professional folks!
I also happened to have caught the sight of a floating lantern on the canal out of the corner of my eye and snapped a picture of it as it floated past me. There are women and lining the streets trying to sell these to the tourists passing by, but from what I’ve been told they’re mostly used during both half and full moon celebrations when the lights of the town are turned off and the entire city is lit up by both hanging and floating lanterns. The one I saw floating might not have been nearly as pretty as some of the photos I’ve seen of celebrations in Hoi An, but it was the perfect ending to my night of photography.
After waking up late the day before, I set my alarm and left the balcony doors open so there was no way I was sleeping in. I had a lot of touristy type stuff to see and I wasn’t going to waste any time getting to it. Like every day, I found some place to eat before heading off for the day. The day before I had noticed a lone field standing in the center of the old section of town and was incredibly intrigued by the small old woman who was out working it. She looked like every other woman you’ll find in Vietnam working a field, but there was something about watching her work hard in the middle of a city full of people taking it easy that compelled me to pull out my camera and snap a photo of her.
After a few minutes had passed, I continued on my way and found a tourism booth to purchase some tickets for seeing historic buildings with. I can’t really remember which ones I visited, and I’ve since lost the map with the names circled, so I’ll give you the highlights of my adventure. I found myself touring people’s actual homes. Sure they were old and impressive, but I felt intrusive to the lives they were obviously trying to live. There were children in rockers, old people sleeping in odd corners, and women cleaning as I found myself in some of the strangest places I’ve been to on my trip… and that might be saying a lot folks. I was after all, in SE Asia. Anyway, I found myself sort of rejecting these old houses as I walked along in exchange for places like the arts center where some of the lanterns are made and sold. I had seen piles of these bamboo ribs laying about town, and finally understood what they were used for. It really should have been obvious, given that the city is known for their lanterns, but since I had never seen the inside of one, it didn’t occur to me to be that obvious in my thinking.
Also during this time, I found another tea house and enjoyed some strong yet delicious (and pricey) lotus tea. Now I wasn’t sure what I was going to get with this one when agreeing to it, so I was surprised to learn that lotus tea is made from a lotus flower filled with green tea leaves and left to absorb the flavors for something like a few hours to a few days (there was a little confusion during this part of the tea experience and I never got an exact answer). I had two nice young ladies waiting on me, which seemed excessive, until they began the extensive cleaning and preparation for the tea pouring at the table in front of me. I sat for a long time enjoying every drop of tea I could get and chatting with the one girl who understood a fair amount of English, but eventually it was time to leave and continue on with my tour.
I went into everything from a Chinese church to empty lots to at least one more old house on my way back to my hotel room. Hoi An had showed me everything it had to offer during my extensive day of tourism, and I had covered a lot of ground and seen a lot of interesting things. After finding myself back in my hotel room, I had every intention of heading back out after a quick shower for some dinner, but instead found myself fast asleep sooner than I bargained for. Apparently at the ripe old age of 25 my body can’t handle a full day in the sun!
It was another early morning for me. This time I was up early in order to rent a motorbike for my trip to the temple complex of My Son just outside of Hoi An. Why I was renting a motorbike for a solo trip knowing how bad I am at navigation and getting lost?! I’m not sure, but I’m pretty sure the overly independent and adventurous side of me had an answer for that question. To be extra safe I convinced the lady I rented the bike from to let me borrow her map, and I was off in search of some ruins. After stopping to buy some gas I was off to a relatively easy and mistake free trip. It couldn’t last, and trust me when I say it didn’t. Since none of the roads are well-marked, I found myself driving through cities asking for directions. Luckily people are incredibly nice and willing to help a lost tourist out. Eventually I found myself driving down a sandy path with an old lady on the back of my bike directing me to the ferry up ahead. I had done something very wrong to get here. I was told there was a bridge, but since it was 10 kilometers away I paid the toll (which was ridiculously high thanks to my passport and lack of Asian appearance) and drove my bike onto a bamboo covered barge…. that’s right… I drove it onto the thing. Talk about nerve wrecking!
Since luck seemed to be on my side again, I was parked on the boat next to a man who was from the area and taught English at a local school. He offered to guide me the rest of the way after the boat docked at the other end. Now this is where my day got a little more interesting. What ever I thought about how hard it was to get the bike onto the boat, paled in comparison to getting the bike off the boat. This time I was given a small wooden plank to drive down onto a large sandy beach front with a small path carved into it by all the bikes that had come before me. Somehow I managed to make it off in one piece (thank Buddha, God and everyone else for that matter for that one!), but I definitely didn’t want to experience that again. My heart was pounding in my ears as I followed my guide through the streets ahead.
By the time I made it to the My Son complex, I was more than ready to be there. My easy ride had turned into an extended adventure and it was getting hotter by the second outside. I bought my ticket and drove through the winding roads to the parking lot where I was handed a pass and pointed in the direction of the temples.
Now, My Son isn’t an overly amazing temple complex, given that I had already been to Angkor Wat by this point in my trip, but I wasn’t about to miss chance to walk through another old temple ruin. I sort of have a love of old crumbling things so this temple, like so many others, was right up my alley. I spent a few hours walking around the various sections and buildings that have been excavated, but with the sun now directly overhead and the temperature still rising, I was ready to leave and headed back to my scooter.
This time I found the main road, and even the bridge I had missed before and felt confident that I would make it home in one piece. I guess I got too confident, because I soon became very lost and found myself asking directions over 20 times as I tried to follow the roads and the highway back to Hoi An. I’m not sure why it was so hard for me, but eventually I made it back to town as the sun was beginning to set. I was sunburnt, tired, and to be quite honest incredibly cranky, so I bought some Aloe for my body, some beer for my bad mood, and some snacks to keep my stomach happy and spent the rest of the night in my room away from people.
It was my last day in Hoi An, and I spent most of it inside. My sunburn was killing me, and since I had already seen everything I wanted to in town I didn’t feel guilty about wasting a day indoors. By early afternoon I was feeling hungry, so I ventured out for some Cao Lau and took one final walk around town. At some point I found myself walking through a flower market and struck up a conversation with a nice lady who had lived in the United States with her sister some years ago. She sold me a Gerber Daisy with a few jokes and a giant smile, and told me that if she had a son or young strapping man of relation in town she would set me up with him, as she thought it was a shame I was single.The encounter had made me forget about my sunburn as I walked through town taking in the sights one last time.
When I stopped at a sunglasses stand to invest in a new pair, I not only found myself joking around with the salesman, but also garnering the attention of two women selling fruit nearby. After a little confusion, I figured out that they wanted me to take their picture. Soon I was holding the fruit baskets and wearing one of the ladies hats as the guy selling me glasses grabbed my camera and took my photo. To top it all off somehow the ladies had managed to talk me into buying some fruit from them before I left. As if that wasn’t enough spending for one night, I also found myself haggling with a man later that evening over the price of a marble (questionable marble) Buddha head. Add a bracelet to the mix and you have the end of my time in Hoi An. I was sad to be leaving, but my visa would eventually run out and I had a lot more country to see.