Locals and travelers alike has hyped up my expectations for Hoi An. Everyone raved about it. It was like the Queenstown of Vietnam. People mentioned about the beautiful lanterns lighting up the town at night and the quaint old buildings still standing giving a feeling of stepping into the ancient times. Many travelers have said that they can spend weeks in this town. I was excited. I was prepared to stay a week or more if needed because I had the extra time. One of the reasons why I forgone the idea of making my way to Dalat and back up was to ensure that I had enough time to enough Hoi An.
Reaching Hoi An in the early evening after the long journey via the Motorvina tour, I took a quick rest before heading out to Old Town in Hoi An. I booked a homestay a bit far from town so I had to bike over despite my poor biking skills. Confused with where to park, I tempted to park my bike at this one spot where other bikes are. The lady guarding over the bikes had asked for 40,000 VND to leave my bike there for two hours! The whole “people in Central Vietnam are very nice and would not try to rip you off” talk from my motorbike tour guide went out the door right there. Disappointed, I left and found a more legitimate parking place for only 3,000 VND for the whole night. I later discovered random places to park for free for future reference.
Leaving the bike behind, I eagerly wandered into the Old Town area. I walked passed a ticket office-like area which sold tickets to enter the Old Town; assuming, that was another tourist trip, I ignored it and entered the ancient town. I later read online that they are trying to enforce an entrance fee for tourists to visit the ancient town. It was not very effective since there are no defined entrances or exits for the Old Town area. Navigating further in the surrounding, I was shocked. I was shocked by the amount of tourist and English signs that plagued the little alleys. Despite the old architecture of the buildings and the festive lanterns, Hoi An Old Town lacked charm. The charm has been masked with the overwhelming tourism and westernization.
Wandering deeper into town by the river, I encountered more lanterns hung on the streets and on old buildings. Many vendors try to sell their boat rides and paper flower candles. I can see why people say Hoi An is for lovers. Despite the lack thereof an ancient charm, it does setup a romantic atmosphere for lovers to stroll down the lantern-lit streets in the Old Town. It reminds me of an Asian version of a Venice and Amsterdam crossover. I think I would enjoy it a lot more of this UNESCO heritage site if it was able to maintain its heritage and keep the signs in Vietnamese. While English menus in restaurants are certainty appreciated, there is no need to laminate English and French words all across town.
Crossing over to the other side of the water, you encounter several shops selling lanterns. Most of the visitors would pose for photos than actually buying a lantern. I contemplated buying one, but carrying a lantern across the countries will be a hassle. Beyond the lantern shops is a night market for souvenir shopping and street food. I really enjoyed the grilled rice paper with quail egg, banh trang nuong. It looks small, but very filling! They also have these ice cream popsicles in the shape of a long thin cone. I took the opportunity to take a durian flavored one!
Hoi An has many unique dishes. I wish my stomach can fit more food sometimes. Cao lau is an iconic noodle dish only found in Hoi An (of course, you can find modified versions of it outside of town as well). It is made with thick noodles boiled in water from a special Cham well and complemented with pork. I have seen many banh mi chains in Hanoi that has ‘Hoi An’ next to the name. I am not sure why banh mi is particularly well known in Hoi An, but I took the chance to try two of the famous places in town. They were okay – I think they put a lot less pickled vegetables from what I am used to having at home. I did not find anything special about them and one of the places actually served really tough baguettes. White roses is another special Hoi An dish which are these dumplings with translucent skin. I somehow always end up with noodle dishes instead of rice options, but I managed to try another Hoi An speciality, com ga, or chicken rice. Again, it was only okay.
Coincidentally, we were there during the 60th celebration of Earth Hour. Most of the restaurants in Old Town dimmed their lights in observing the conservational hour. There were many students singing and dancing during the hour of darkness. It was interesting to see a place like Vietnam to dedicate an hour without lights for Earth Hour since otherwise conservation and recycling practices are not in place. I took the liberty to be a part of the pollutant and bought a paper flower candle with a friend to release into the river.
Hoi An Old Town during the day is much more calm. Perhaps, I had a skewed perception of the general atmosphere of the Old Town since I visited during the weekend where local tourist and other foreigners would flock to town. On my last day, I found it a lot more peaceful here. I wish to stay longer, but my homestay kept hustling me with their services so I decided to make it to Da Nang earlier. I was also tired of the need to bike to town since I always get lost or nervous when cars and motorbikes come close to me. I did not end up getting anything tailor made. There are heaps of tailor clothing shops here where you can make custom clothing for an affordable price. I have no idea what I would have wanted to have custom made and carried with me for the rest of my journey.
Hoi An certainly did not live up to the hype for me. I am just not very keen on staying in overly touristic areas. I do think it is a great place for a family vacation or couples to visit. I did not visit the beach in Hoi An as it was said to be similar to the ones in Da Nang.
I decided to go on a half day tour to My Son during my stay in Hoi An. My Son contains the ruins of the temples from the Cham people. I am not going to Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat this time so I guess My Son would give me a small glimpse of the Cham architecture. Just my luck, I picked the day when it rained to visit! I should have listened to my homestay staff and went the day before. The ruins were interesting to see, but the tour was really rushed. I met these travelers from Estonia and they had visited Angkor Wat before and said the My Son sanctuary is only a small fraction of the size of the Angkor Wat. I still wish to visit Angkor Wat some day!