Some places you visit and they seem timeless, like the Eiffel Tower, and you know it will be there when you kids come to visit Paris. Hoi An, Vietnam feels magical and authentic and I want it to be timeless. It has been here for thousands of years and maybe it is just my paranoia but seeing the thousands of hotel and resort units in development between Da Nang and Hoi An make me sure this magical little place will face changes sooner than I would like. We have already posted about a couple of Hoi An area adventures – Ba Na Hill and Judi and Kate’s Photography class – so feel free to go an check those out also.
Below are our top nine tips, reflections and memories of our two weeks in April 2017 visiting Hoi An and the surrounding areas.
- Hoi An – ancient city core: Hoi An was the dominant port of central Vietnam for centuries until the river silted up and commerce moved 20 miles away to Da Nang. It was frozen in time like Jacksonville, Oregon when the railroad passed it by. The old town is hundreds of lost in time shops, restaurants, homes and Assembly Halls that are authentically still there waiting for you. The color, building shape, roof line, roof tiles and streets have been wonderfully preserved. There is an many entrance booths selling entrance to Ancient Town tickets (five coupon stubs for $12) and is technically required to be purchased but we spent a week exploring before we were joined by friends that wanted to look into the historic Assembly Halls and cross the famous Japanese Bridge, all of which requires a ticket stub (the government tallies these and then contributes to the preservations of the sites). We had great meals on both sides of the river at Morning Glory II, Green Heaven and Golden Moon. We had amazing self- scooped ice cream at Enjoy (totally worth the trip – kids tried the wasabi but I couldn’t try the beer flavor). Everyone in Hoi An will ask you if you have a tailor yet, and there are dozens to choose from. We didn’t have anything made for us but there is no doubt about the good reputation and ability here. Judi would have bought a suit if we weren’t still on the road for so long. Lastly, we have to say we enjoyed the coffee from the Hoi An Roastery (which has about six outlets just in the ancient town area) but made a morning ritual of biking all across the ancient town to Mia Coffee. It has great coffee, great service and a charming vine covered patio where Judi and I would sip our drinks and watch the town wake up – the lady across the street washing and sweeping the pavers out front of her tailor shop, the four garbage men that walk along behind the truck just about daily picking up the small plastic trash bags just left tied up on the curb and the families sitting curb side having breakfast. And it was the only coffee place open before 8am.
- We learned to bike in Vietnam and you can too: To get to Mia Coffee Judi and I would bike about fifteen minutes from our place, the Galaxy Homestay. John and I biked about forty minutes to the Pottery Village one day. We usually biked for dinner or the fifteen minutes to An Bang beach. This was a big deal. Cars, tour buses, a million motorbikes, pedestrians, construction work, the occasional water buffalo and other tourist bikers all share the same two lanes everywhere. The rules as we gleaned them are: 1. bigger and faster has the right of way but also the duty to look out for everyone slower, 2. slow down and be careful at intersection points, but don’t stop (this confuses everyone), and 3. generally obey the timed red lights (their street lights have a wonderful counter on them so you know exactly when the light will turn either green or red) (I say ‘generally’ because if it is safe to go, it apparently is fine to go). There is no signaling or bike helmets. After sending your kids off into this and watching everyone survive it is hard to imagine worrying about them in any sort of traffic and by the end the kids would zoom ahead confident and comfortable as part of the Vietnamese traffic flow.
- Cham Islands day trip, beautiful but keep your expectations low: We booked a day out to the Cham Islands through our host for $35 each. The big bus picked us up in the morning at our place and took us to a speed boat at the harbor. We toured the main island that has long been a strategic asset for Hoi An and saw the temple, shops and hospital at the port city of Cu Lao. It took about 45 minutes to walk the main town where the 2,000 or so inhabitants live and work. They got electricity in the 1990s and when you get to high school age you have to spend the week in Hoi An to continue your schooling. The snorkeling was a bust. No fins, no prescription masks – really not much in the way of description. We were taken to a small area of reef where we saw a handful of fish (I mean two to four) and one blue starfish. Oh, and I forgot one of our iPhones was in my pocket when I jumped in so we will see how that comes out (having it looked at in Hanoi but I’m pretty sure salt water is bad for cell phones). They provide a lunch which we figured would be pretty standard but it was the spectacular part of the whole event. Dish after dish of amazing local food came out – there was sea snails, rice (steamed and fried), noodles, snapper, stir fried squid, morning glory vegetables, egg omelet, barracuda, two kinds of soups and pork ribs. Then we had a couple of hours to just hang out a beach that would have made Gilligan and Ginger happy to stay put.
- An Bang Beach paradise under a thatched umbrella: We spent a lot of time at the beach. A fifteen minute ride from the homestay, across a two lane road with rice paddies and water buffalo on both sides, was An Bang beach. As you bike up to the beach area locals are flagging you into to park your bike at their shop (either 3000 VD each or 10,000 VD for a large bottle of water and you can park 2 or 3 bikes there – 22,000 VD = $1). The beach is spectacular, sand soft, water crisp and cool and the waves ranged from too much one day (posted no swimming) to gentle surf all the other days. For either 500-600,000 VD you can rent a beach chair under a thatched umbrella for the day or simply agree to eat lunch at the restaurant immediately up from your chairs. John and I did manage to mess up one day and go to the wrong restaurant that cause a bit of a stir but it all worked out in the end. Your restaurant / beach chair monitors will bring you giant Tiger beers or soft drinks upon request and ladies come by and peel fruit for you (whole pineapple or mango peeled and quartered for 30,000 VD). There were tourists from everywhere around the globe but it never felt too packed. We hated to leave our little slice of paradise.
- Historic Imperial City of Hue: This was a long day trip from Hoi An but for us it was the right way to visit. For 2,000,000 VD we hired a car and driver for the day. Hue was the capital of Vietnam for better than a century until 1954. It was the center of the Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War and the bulk of the Imperial Palace area was leveled. The throne room has been restored and other buildings are in the process of being recreated from their foundations but at this time it is still full of crumbling walls and trip hazards. The walls are impressive and it was worth the admission price of 150,000 for Judi and I and 30,000 for each child. Totally worth the afternoon walking around and reading the photo captions of historic pictures. We also visited a historic pagoda (free and worth the walk up to look at – because it was free) and drove around the old city lanes a bit. We did land on the best presented meal any of us have every had – at Vuon y Thao, (also sometimes listed in Trip Advisor or other guides as Y Thao Garden) new the Palace. Lots of travelers stay a day or two in Hue to avoid the long drive or stay on their way north to the DMZ area but for us the packing and unpacking is a drag and we would rather day trip and stay in known surroundings.
- Embrace your fellow travelers: We met the Nestlers in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. While Judi and I went for a walk we left the kids on their own to relax at our hostel. When we got back they were busy playing Monopoly with a bunch of other kids. The Nestlers are a wonderful German family on the end of their one year on the road. Uta and Frank are both engineers and two of their three wonderful kids matched Kate and John’s ages. It worked out that they could come and stay at the Galaxy Homestay for a few days while we were there and it was a huge reason why Hoi An will always be special for us. We got to hang out on the beach altogether and explore the ancient town in the evenings. The best part was just having friends – the adults talked about work and travel and parenting, John and Tobias played games or Mine Craft, Saide and Kate did homework, dyed Easter eggs and talked and Felix (the youngest) just hung out wherever he wanted. As our guide in Agra said to us, “it is not the food but the people you eat with that makes the meal special”, and getting to share this great place with new friends made it even more special.
- Visit the Pottery Village: This was worth a very quick day trip. John and I biked about 40 minutes from our homestay to a village where traditionally all the pottery and tile for the region has been made. Today, as you bike into town you buy a ticket to enter (20,000 VD for me, John was free – the Terra-cotta property is separate) and you get to bike around what is about two city blocks of narrow paths. The standard gig is which ever local potter catches your eye first invites you into their porch / studio where they give their pottery wheel a kick (no motors or pedals here, just a well placed foot) and let you get your hands a bit dirty. Then after they expertly guide your hands to make something that looks vaguely cup or bowl like we got to etch our name on it and put it ceremoniously on a shelf. Then we are invited in to see their work. This was exactly what John and I were looking for as an experience and we loved the hook – a free, fun experience and then a sale pitch. But with the knowledge of no space to carry stuff we opted for buying chopstick holders (we plan on using chopsticks much more often at home after this). I would have bought a lot more stuff had we been headed home. We biked around a bit more and watched a young man making a beautiful vase. Then it was time to follow the river and meander back to Hoi An.
- Teaching English and getting involved: Our host is a wonderful man who went to school in Czech Republic (before it was split) to study engineering. He met his wife there and eventually they returned to her family’s home in Hoi An. Our host had grown up in An Bang beach in a family of fishermen and told us great stories of how the families on the beach would work together sharing their catch if someone had a bad day. But eventually during the war, in which he lost both parents, his family sent he and his siblings to Da Nang. Now, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday nights his patio fills with motorbikes and his back room fills up with young people, 18-26 years old, working on learning English. Kate and I became special helpers, brought in to read portions of their workbook so everyone could hear our accent and intonations. Also then we would go table to table listening and coaching. It felt good to be part of the future of global communication. These people are the future and they want to make their lives better and they know better communication is the key. They took special pleasure in listening to me pronounce things with hard ending sounds like “cat” and then he would have me pronouncing a Vietnamese word like “cac”, which I do with a hard ‘k’ sound of course. Even though we did this exercise each night it never failed to send everyone into fits of laughter. I really should look it up but I just enjoyed being part of this fun path to a better future.
- It is all about the people you meet: You travel to see the stuff and it always ends up being about the people. We will always remember and love our host family at the Galaxy Homestay( $45 a night for two rooms and breakfast included). We loved their breakfast and by the end of our time our host just called John “Mr. Instant Noodle”. When we arrived, our host had gone out and gotten Kate a huge birthday cake, candles and hats for a celebration of her turning 13 the day before we arrived. Judi and Kate puttered in the kitchen learning to make local foods and our hosts invited us to share a dinner with them our last night there. One night when we were out late on the Full Moon Lantern night our host father was still up making sure we got home safely. He only half jokingly offered to keep Kate there and she only half jokingly deferred. They would offer us bananas from their tree in the back if they thought we might be hungry and always took care of every detail we discussed. In short, we felt like family by the time we left and I have no doubt that is part of what made Hoi An magical for us.
But we know Hoi An, and the special things about it won’t stay that way forever. We already talk of our return. I have no doubt it will happen and we will certainly move back into our rooms at the Galaxy.