In the early 18th century, Hoi An was the largest trading port in all of Southeast Asia. But in a twist of fate, the Emperor Gia Long took over at the end of the 18th century and gave foreign trade rights to nearby Da Nang. Plus, the river mouth silted, and left Hoi An unable to continue its reign as the monolithic harbor it once was.
The result is a well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site, a frozen-in-time 18th century medley of cultural influences, from Portuguese to Dutch, Cham to Chinese. Japanese, French, Buddhist, Indian … you can see them all in one stroll through this town of 120,000 inhabitants. I had no chance – Hoi An swiftly captivated me with its charm, its sweet, sweet people, its quaint shuttered windows, and calm river.
I had arrived in the afternoon. My $30-a-night hotel had a gorgeous balcony overlooking the eastern outskirts of town, from which I spent some time sipping my welcome tea and watching a collection of young kids playing pickup soccer.
I got my bearings and headed for town. No better time than twilight to see it for the first time – the warm, yellow glow of the lanterns washing over the ancient architecture of storefronts and temples. The aroma of dinner in full swing at restaurants with cuisine from across the world. The calm river, and the soft reflections of hope-filled lanterns released upon its delicate, rippled surface.
The light sound of music from food and drinking establishments on both sides of the river. The balmy feel of a peaceful night with moisture in the air.
Hoi An is famous for its craftsmanship – everything from ceramics to textiles.
And, they have the best tailors in the country. I popped into Yaly – one of the bigger tailor shops in Hoi An. After some scrutinizing over pictures of the shirt and shorts set I wanted made and my measurements were taken, I meandered back to the hotel.
It’s a whole other treat to see a town awaken in the morning. The jetlag has made it easy to rise at 6 or 7AM, so I got out and out early. I strolled around to the early morning smell of streetcar donuts called Banh Duong. Simple, light-as-a-feather puff dough, smothered in sugar. I walked down to the river.
As I walk, the sleepy streets become more and more peppered with morning routines. Local women buying their daily produce at the town market. Men on the river, cleaning their boats and carefully preparing their fishing nets. Canoe guides in conical straw hats, already protecting their weather-worn faces from the oppression of the impending midday sun. I caught a group of men – some middle aged, some older – playing a hearty game of dominoes. They were chain-smoking, and gambling, and placing and collecting pieces and money more quickly than I knew what was happening. As I pulled up a chair, a few quizzical looks were followed by a brief smile – silent permission for me to observe and document their daily ritual.
A continued walk along the river revealed daytime treasures: colorfully painted wooden boats along the river, delicately patterned lanterns strung every which way, tourists taking frenzied amounts of photos of a place so pretty you can’t take a bad picture, the stunning Japanese footbridge in the middle of town, the two-story restaurants with river-facing tables on both levels, the green and yellow of the palm trees dotting the riverbank.
It was Christmas Eve, and so I returned to my hotel for a party they were throwing for the patrons. While a bit peculiar – with a shiny velvet-clad Vietnamese hotel employee dancing Gangnam style – the party was an incredibly sweet and a most well-intentioned gesture from the staff, to make its patrons feel welcomed and at home at a time away from home.
After the party I went to a local bar called Dive Bar with a few travelers I met in the hotel. A killer French duo called “Wish You Were Knocking on Tears in California” played everything from original French rock, to all sorts of covers from Beatles to Bowie. This was heaven. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.
On my last day, it poured. But I’d already booked a day trip to the Hindu temples of My Son, and the limestone hills of the Marble Mountains.
My Son is about an hour’s drive from Hoi An, during which I was transfixed, staring out of the window. I couldn’t get great shots because of the rain and the movement of the car, but it was this drive that really made the trip to My Son worth it for me. Weaving through small villages, seeing houses each with their own plots of rice, and the many farmers harvesting their rice paddies in the middle of the rainstorm. Getting to peek into their daily lives is something I won’t soon forget.
The temples of My Son were built between 700-1700 years ago, and are situated in a gorgeous, lush valley. Sadly they’re in decrepit shape. Partially because they’ve been abandoned and have withered with time, but also because the US bombed the crap out of this area during Vietnam. What remains is a collapsing collection of stone structures. On close inspection, they’re intricately carved, but worn with time. The magic was really seeing how nature has crept up on the temples – green peeking out of this corner and that. The juxtaposition makes taking a bad picture almost impossible.
Unfortunately, I’d just experienced Angkor Wat, the grandeur of which these temples couldn’t scratch the surface. So, while pretty – My Son didn’t really stand a chance for me. Plus it was pouring out and I forgot an umbrella (my bad). We drove on, headed to the Marble Mountains of Da Nang.
Truthfully, I didn’t find there was much to see here. There’s one interesting pagoda, and a few small caves, in which they’ve built small shrines to Buddha. Much more interesting is seeing them from afar – how the limestone juts out of the ground just so. And the rumor that the Vietcong hid a hospital in the Marble Mountains, with the American GI hangout of China beach (My Khe) less than 5km away. Hiding in plain sight.
If Da Nang sounds familiar, it’s because you read that it’s #43 in The New York Times’ 52 Places to Go in 2015. Da Nang is a beach town – former GI hangout turned luxury beach strip. Its resorts constructed back-to-back, it could be any beach, really. So yes, Hoi An is well-touristed, as the NYT points out. But for the number of tourists it houses each day, it does a fantastic job preserving an intoxicatingly lovely atmosphere. It’s worth making your way 30km south of Da Nang, to step into the charm that is Hoi An.