WE PULL into Hoi An, Vietnam at around 6:30 am, jittery, exhausted, and frankly relieved to be alive.
The 12 hours previous to our arrival have been a nightmarish, non-stop, seeming suicide attempt by an overnight bus driver who insisted on barreling around 25km/hr corners next to 500m sheer cliffs at twice the speed limit, blowing past oncoming buses with centimeters to spare, crashing over potholes and speed bumps at maximum velocity, and slamming on his brakes for traffic at the last possible minute before collision.
Overnight buses, like the one we have taken from Nha Trang north along the coast to Hoi An, are a lot cheaper than other transportation in Vietnam for long distances. But in our experience, the extra grey hairs aren’t really worth it. If you save a few bucks but lose life, limb or family member, hasn’t your penny-pinching been in vain?
But we digress. Now we are in Hoi An, and the gentle vibe of this small historic city calm our nerves immediately. Perhaps it’s the feeling that we could actually be in the 18th century, an ambience heightened by the local government’s decision to turn off all power in the town from late morning to early evening. While this proves slightly inconvenient at first (especially with no A.C. or fans in 33 C heat) , we quickly adjust.
Hoi An has one of the longest histories of any city in Southeast Asia.
From the 7th through the 10th century the Cham people controlled the city and its spice trade, sharing the town with a Japanese settlement on the North bank of the river. After the Cham moved south toward Nha Trang, Chinese, Portuguese, Indian, and even Dutch traders moved in to pick up the trade, building Hoi An into one of the most important ports in the region.
Eventually, however, political and geographical changes led to the decline of Hoi An as a trading center. The Thu Bon river estuary silted up and large trading ships could no longer ply the water route from the coast to the town. Now the town is known mainly as a center for traditional ceramic and textile art – a designation which becomes obvious to anyone who explores the famed Old Town.
BICYCLING THE ANCIENT CITY
Bicycle is the best way to explore the UNESCO World Heritage-designated Old Town and surrounding neighborhoods, all of which have interesting side-streets and alleys to explore.
We find a hidden gem of a tea shop down one alley. May Concept has a huge selection of gourmet teas and iced drinks and a very friendly staff, one of whom, Ngoc, shows us to the rooftops to get a birds-eye view of the old town. (Sadly, the Internet has informed us that since our visit, May Concept has closed indefinitely.)
As visitors to Vietnam may know, each region and even city in the country has their own famous local dish. So, we feel it’s our duty to stop at a local restaurant for two Hoi An delicacies – Cao Lau, a spicy noodle dish, and Bun Thit Nu’ong, a local spin on vermicelli noodles and grilled pork.
After sampling the cuisine, we pedal down toward the riverfront, where the Thu Bon River lazes through the countryside toward the muddy coast.
THU BON RIVERFRONT
Winding lanes lined with paper lanterns and bakeries and shops housed in French colonial-era buildings lure shoppers and photographers alike as we near the water.
The Thu Bon drifts lazily for a few kilometers from this riverfront before emptying its silty self into the Pacific Ocean – a geographical advantage that the numerous riverfront tour boat operators take full advantage of.
A good way to wrap up the day in Hoi An: get dinner at one of the numerous excellent French or Vietnamese restaurants near the riverfront, and then take a night walk of the bridges spanning the many canals criss-crossing the city. The streets and the river light up nightly with hundreds upon hundreds of festive bright red and yellow paper lanterns and everyone is out to enjoy the cool evening air.
AN BANG BEACH
It’s so hot the next day that we decide to bicycle out to the most popular swimming beach in Hoi An, An Bang Beach.
This white-sand beach is located just northeast of the village. It’s a flat and incredibly scenic 5km pedal (or about a 30 minute ride if you’re slow and prone to stop every 5 seconds for photos, like us) on mainly packed-dirt roads over saltwater creeks and through coastal rice paddies. Though we highly recommend this ride, you must remember to exercise extreme caution and defer to the traffic while sharing the roads and bridges with cars, as you will need to do mainly near the beach. Vietnam has a….ahem….different view of road etiquette in the best of circumstances.
Storms blow just a few miles off the coast as we arrive, but luckily the water is still safe to swim, so we jump in and made a day of it. If you’re intimidated by the currents, you can always rent one of the handy wooden tubs (the ones with little red or orange flags attached to them) available from local resorts scattered all over the beach. Though somewhat tippy, they are super fun to paddle around in.
LEAVING HOI AN
Though we’ve had only three days in Hoi An (with almost a full day spent napping after our night bus horror show), the easy-going charm and beauty of this village has seeped into us. What was supposed to be basically a stop-over between Nha Trang and nearby Da Nang has turned into an experience of its own.
We can see why so many artists and restaurant owners have decided to make this little village their home. We’ll definitely return!