Imagine a place where time seemingly stands still and ambiance invades all your senses. Tranquility, beauty, poetic romance and friendly welcoming local people. Not only is Hoi An one of the most charming old towns I have ever visited, the colors of the ancient buildings’ architecture ageing poetically is a visual feast that will remain a fond highlight on your mind’s hard drive, but the local food is a sensory delight as well. Hoi An is now a designated Unesco World Heritage site, saving the ancient town for the future generations.
The drive from Hue to Hoi An along the scenic route was long, but certainly offered some beautiful views and historic sites of previous horrid war events. We arrived at Hoi An just before sunset, perfect timing, just when the various shades of ocher old buildings glow intensely. The Unesco World Heritage designated city is even more alluring than I remembered from a previous visit. Our small gem of a villa hotel, Villa Hoi Su An – or endearingly and appropriately named Villa Frangipani – at the outskirts of the town, adjacent to a lazy river, was an unexpected and very charming location. Only 8 large villa rooms facing a koi pond with a central old wooden pavilion surrounded by the heavy scent of blossoming frangipani trees.
No time to unpack yet, as we wanted to get into the old town before sunset. The old town is a pedestrian zone where only bicycle rickshaws are allowed. The ocher colored old houses are incredibly charming.
Most buildings are around 200 years old, many were and are still owned by Japanese or Chinese merchants. Some merchant houses are open to visit if you buy a reasonably priced coupon book. It is fascinating to see how families still live here and especially still cook multiple meals here in the very primitive kitchens.
The sun is now setting along the river and the restaurants in the quaint houses along the river and the small narrow streets are starting to get busy. Some old fishermen are sitting on primitive wooden scaffoldings pedaling the huge fishing nets up from the bottom of the river, while old smiling women are sitting in their old rowing boats with their Vietnamese straw hats, begging you to take a sunset river ride, or at least pay them for letting you take their photo.
The bicycle rickshaw guys are relaxing, chatting and eating or taking a nap on a street corner, waiting for business to pick up.
The next morning we bicycle into old town again, parking the bicycles in from of the old market building. Strolling down the cobble stoned old streets we discover old shop houses, stunning old Chinese Buddhist temples, wonderful cafes, galleries and tailors. I have never seen so many tailors in one place before. Check out the quality carefully before you order, as I learned by sad experience that the quality and styles vary tremendously. Overnight you can have your suit, dresses or shirts made. I recommend going to one of the larger and recognized places as their designers and tailors are excellent, and I recommend that you bring images of what you like as some of the style books are quite dated.
The old Chinese Buddhist temples are colorful and wonderful with their extraordinary roof ornamentation, bright hues and spiral incense hanging from the ceiling. Most temples require a ticket to get in, which is a bit annoying, but it certainly is worth it as the temple interiors are so stunning.
My absolute favorite experience is exploring the many charming narrow alleyways running perpendicular to the river. The moss over-grown ocher walls and old colorful metal gates offer glimpses into how life is still lived today, simple. Families sitting on the floor watching TV or families gathering for a shared meal. Mainly old people are gathering, while an old fan is blowing a welcome breeze during the very hot day. You can spend hours crisscrossing the alley ways while trying to depict the residential charm of the past. Beautiful old ceramic tiles adorn many floors.
One of the most famous landmarks is the old Japanese covered wood bridge. Other of my favorites are the old Japanese shop houses, still belonging to the same family with many generations living under the same roof, and still relatively untouched.
Food is wonderful and generally inexpensive. Vietnamese beers are cheaper than water and great companions to the spicy, simple but very tasty noodle dishes which Hoi An is known for. You can order tasty fresh Vietnamese spring rolls if you prefer non spicy food. Relax during the heat of the day with a cold Vietnamese coffee with icecream in one of the many charming cafes.
I love exploring the market halls. Around noon many of the vendors are napping on the benches and metal tables. Great food is freshly cooked in and being shared in some of the stalls, while spices and fresh vegetables are piled up in photogenic piles. Outside the market you will meet many Vietnamese ladies with their double baskets over their shoulders or squatting barely above the ground. Lovely ladies, who love to chat and laugh. Along the river you will find fresh fish and crabs with their claws tied up with colorful rags of fabric. Although the crabs’ future is limited, the craftsmanship of tying the claws with colorful strands of fabric is poetic. Beware, the halls are primitive and the smelly slimy fishy water makes it so slippery. I almost took a nosedive into the river, much to the entertainment of the old ladies, who had warned me. An occasional rat running in-between my legs made the experience even more authentic. The photo opportunities made the experience double memorable.
Life is slow and it is a wonderful experience to meander through the old city for some days, as charm and architecture is truly romantic and stunning, the town offers full immersion. Some years the river will flood the streets dramatically, best to check the weather report before planning a trip. Nearby beaches should be quite good, but I just cannot get enough of the old town which is such a visual treasure.
Biking back to the small hotel and getting served freshly cooked food cooked by the receptionist, surrounded by the frangipani trees, was a welcome respite after a very hot day of leisure.
Written by Zia Hansen. Photos by Zia Hansen