Vietnam: Hoi An

Our holiday in Vietnam was progressing quite wonderfully. And then we arrived in Hoi An Old Town.

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“Excuse me, excuse me, you hep to bai tickettt!” called out a lady from a counter, staring at us as if we were retarded.

I suppose there’s a first time for everything. A first time going on a cruise. A first time having beef tartare. A first time paying entry into a historical town. Or wait, was it an outdoor mall?

I couldn’t decide – all I see are rows upon rows of souvenir shops, selling everything a person needs, from silk lanterns…

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to bamboo bikes…

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to silly hats.

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All ready for my catwalk debut.

We also saw a lot of tourists shopping. And tourists beaming and snapping pics on their fancy SLRs as they posed on sidewalks and sat in cyclos, which were now swiftly bearing down upon us.

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Well, excuse you!

The drivers rang out their bells in warning: “Watch out!” I jumped aside, my nerves in a disarray.

Death by cyclo. Now that would be an interesting obituary.

To be fair, the old town is a tidy warren of streets lined with over 800 atmospheric centuries-old wooden buildings. Those that haven’t yet been converted into overpriced restaurants and made-in-China clothing and bag stalls are ones you can visit.

A ticket entitles you into five out of the 22 heritage buildings that are open to public and you can take your pick among museums, ancient houses, temples and pagodas. The insides of these structures were a world of their own: many had a peaceful courtyard that allowed you to linger in quiet contemplation.

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Yes, I’m meltingggggg.

We had zero strategy, so we visited – actually, darted around and took refuge in, would be a more appropriate term, given 35°C weather- the most convenient buildings we came across. Few had tours or were truly impressive; we visited three very similar buildings and one which had nothing much to offer apart from another abysmal souvenir stall hiding in the courtyard. #FML

We also traipsed to the Japanese Covered Bridge, a lovely 18th century structure built by the Japanese and the icon of Hoi An.

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Not the cleanest river though.

We tried having a meal in one of the Tripadvisor recommended restaurants in the old town, but of course it was awful. What we did like, however, was Phuong Banh Mi, a little restaurant made famous by the late, great ‘Tony Bourdain, that’s just right outside the perimeters of the old town.

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Where the banh mi magic happens.

On the day we were there, business was booming and this little eatery was brimming with white tourists hoping to get their sandwich fix. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it the ‘best Banh Mi in Vietnam’ like Bourdain did, but it was far better than your average sandwich.

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Like a sandwich, but only better!

There are several things to do in Hoi An besides the old town. We signed up for Jack Tranh’s Tour, a local tour provider that prides itself in delivering ‘authentic’ experiences, to get a glimpse of Hoi An’s rural side and – my husband would claim this is the real reason – to ride in a traditional basket boat.

First, we were taken to a fishing village, where we were given a short sermon on boat building, before we hopped onto a wooden vessel of our own.

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We were taken to the Cua Dai River, where a grand total of two old fisherfolk with tanned, leathery faces were fishing the traditional way – with nets. It turns out grandma and grandpa were contracted by the Jack Tranh tour company to stand out there and engage in a bit of play-acting to look good for the cameras.

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Of course, the fun part was when we got to try to haul in the fishes ourselves with these big, cumbersome nets. Between the seven of us, we scored several anorexic-looking fishes and shrimp  – not enough to feed my cat, let alone a family of four – and probably heatstroke (though we were too elated to care).

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Putting my impulse purchase to good use!

Our winning streak continued atop the traditional fishing contraption fashioned from bamboo. Basically, you sit at the top of a creaky tower and hoist the net up by turning the wheel with your hands or feet, hoping all the while that the structure doesn’t collapse under the weight of all the accumulated spring rolls in your body. It’s a bit like that stationary bike ride at the gym, except that, hey, you might – or might not, as in our case – get a free bundle of seafood thrown in at the end of your very sweaty cardio session!

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Nope, Ari is not happy about being up there!

And then it was time for the hotly-anticipated basket boat ride. Our multi-talented guides performed all sorts of hilarious stunts – including a Gangnam-style dance – on these iconic round boats before inviting us to join them. Of course, the only thing we succeeded in doing was embarrassing ourselves.

Soon, we found ourselves rowing down a peaceful tributary – the former hideout of the Viet Congs – and were regaled with stories of the war and how some soldiers would be immersed in the waters for hours at a time, sucking air from a reed to survive.

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Our tour ended nicely: with a pleasant feast onboard the boat, cooked by the very same Gangnam-style dancers on a tiny stove out back (in case you were wondering what other hidden skills they were harboring).

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Making new friends.

Our final day was dedicated to the Thanh Ha Terracotta Park, a small but charming museum where we learned all about the special clay used in the construction of Hoi An’s many ancient houses and temples.

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You could also have a go at painting / making your own pottery (and reenacting that sexy Patrick Swayze-Demi Moore scene with the pottery wheel from Ghost) but my pottery-making skills were so similar to my fishing skills, I ended up being hand-fondled by a staff who tried her best to save my vase from turning into a giant misshapen penis.

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Me and my vase, which Ari broke after this pic was taken!

The landscaped gardens also had an adorable little Miniland, featuring the world’s iconic buildings in clay (instead of Lego).

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We continued our adventure at the Thanh Ha Pottery Village, a 500-year-old commune of craftsmen who used to supply intricately carved tiles and bricks for Hoi An, but now have to eke out a living making substandard souvenirs for underwhelmed tourist groups. The kids loved the animals whistles we bought them and, for our entertainment, spent the rest of their holiday blowing into a tiny clay buffalo’s rear end.

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Evenings were almost always spent on Hoi An’s coastline. Our accommodation, Aira Boutique Hotel, was a short little jaunt to An Bang Beach, a lovely stretch of powdery sand that’s very popular with the locals, who frolic in its waters in rented life vests.

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Odd ones out.

Once the sun sets, they congregate around picnic mats under portable lamps stuck into the sand – amenities which were provided free-of-charge by beachside vendors if you buy some food or drinks from them. The husband was brave enough to try some barbecue seafood, despite the clear absence of cleaning / washing up facilities. I’m happy to report that he survived.

To the dismay of our children, we decided to venture into the old town for some last minute shopping in the night market on our final night – only to find every square inch of the place swarming with tourists. It was still a beautiful place, lit by the glow of a thousand lanterns.

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Our spirits lifted somewhat when we saw blindfolded locals playing a game of pinata with the clay pots that hung in front of them. The crowd was particularly entertained by one determined old man – he looked like he was fending off imaginary monsters. Or greedy family members who wants a piece of his farm after he’s gone. Who knows.

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Pretty much the funniest thing we’ve seen in a long time.

A little while later, a shifty-eyed tout approached me trying to sell tickets to a boat ride.

“They close early, at 8pm today,” he said, trailing after me like a pesky fly that refused to leave.

I could see through his lies. It was already 7.30pm and the Thu Bon river was still overflowing with f*cking tourists. The riverbank was polluted with the paper lanterns they released as they made their wishes – these lay crumpled and abandoned like the dead hopes and dreams of the human race.

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The Thu Bon River.

After a good amount of hard sell on his part, we finally gave in to the tout and hopped aboard one of the sampans. The guy rowing it gave us some paper lanterns to light and release. And as we floated down the river, surrounded by music, lights and a bunch of people having a bloody great holiday, this cynic even started to – gasp! – relax and enjoy herself.

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I mean, who doesn’t love lanterns?!

I think I could get used to this. (But I’d rather not).

STAY

Aira Boutique Hotel A resort-style hotel that’s away from the tourist hordes and close to a public beach. Pool is compact, but expect more bang for your buck: rooms are tastefully done up and meals – whether it is breakfast, lunch or dinner – are always a delight and set among swaying coconut palms. Staff are particularly helpful ad always on standby with umbrellas or a helping hand. Laundry service is also cheap by hotel standards. $$

TIPS

  • The star attraction of Hoi An is its old town, but do not underestimate the crowds and temperatures – it could ruin the best of plans. Factor in a full day – and night – of sightseeing. The town takes on a livelier vibe once the sun sets, but it also a lot more crowded.
  • Since a ticket entitles you to five visits, pick your sights carefully as not all are created equal. Very to visit one house, one pagoda, one temple, one museum, and a traditional music show at the Handicraft workshop. Read reviews of these places before you enter. The ticket is valid up to 10 days.
  • For short stays (two nights or less), hotels set within or close to the old town might be more rewarding. For longer stays or if you have children with you, a stay in a hotel further along the coast might be more rewarding. There is little for kids to do within the old town apart from the boat and cyclo ride.
  • There are plenty of things to do outside the old town, if you have a set of wheels and a sense of adventure. You can easily spend a week here without getting bored.

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