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Hoi An: More than pretty lanterns and cheap tailors

Posted by on July 9, 2012
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We didn’t plan to go to Hoi An, a beachy town in central Vietnam, but we needed to get to Laos via Hue, not far from Hoi An. So it made us think, before skipping out on Vietnam, maybe some due diligence on Vietnam was needed. After all, we had seen only the north.

Why the hesitation to visit the most-touristed city in the country, the one that people describe as the most beautiful and romantic? Well, after everything we read, the place sounded fake. And as it turns out, the old town, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, kind of is. It’s lit up with lanterns everywhere, which is pretty but also cheesy once you learn that shops are mandated to hang them. And when you stroll around at night, music plays as if from nowhere. It felt like Disneyland.

Lanterns aside, the main draw is the plethora of tailors who can fashion you a fine suit or dress for cheap. But I have no room for more clothes in my backpack, so that was a no-go. A second draw are the cooking classes. But with every single restaurant offering one, it seemed less special. And frankly, we found the food in Hanoi to be far more flavorful and exciting than Hoi An’s, despite the coastal town’s culinary rep.

But on we went. We were going all that way anyway.

Luckily, we knew well enough to stay outside the center at Sunflower Hotel, located midway between the town and Cua Dai beach. Once we were removed from the kitschiness, we finally got a taste for Hoi An’s relaxed, beach bum feel. (That said, the beach is nice, but don’t expect emerald green, clear waters. Don’t expect much breathing room on the sands either.)

We also took a day trip to the ruins of My Son, a plot of temples built by the Champa Kingdom with (now crumbling) statues of Hindu gods. It’s worth checking out in the morning (we left at 5 am) for cooler temps and to avoid crowds. (We were the only group at that time.) Though miniscule compared to Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, what My Son lacks in size, it makes up with a remote, shaded, beautifully lush setting.

But the best thing we did in Hoi An? Something as simple as rent bicycles and veer off the main strip (that heads to the beach) to explore a village. We were the only tourists, so fishermen were happy to show us their loot and when we began to overheat, an old lady let us sit in her home with a fan. I’m consistently amazed by how friendly the locals are. It’s really been the best part of our Asian adventure.

A treat in Old Town. Thank you, French influence.

Amazing meal at Son restaurant. Who knew Hoi An was on board with the slow food movement?

Visited a handicraft workshop on our way back from My Son.

Incense stand in the middle of the pond.

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