02 May 2016

Hoi An I: Things To Do, Places To Shop

After rushing to pack everything into my short stays in Hué and Saigon, I decided to change gear once I got to Hoi An, a beautiful town on the Central Vietnam coast. Hoi An doesn't have an airport or train station so most visitors fly or take the train to Da Nang, which is 20 miles north. I took the train from Hué and it was a beautiful ride through the misty mountains. I booked my train ticket in advance from BaoLau (it was about £4) and the train was pretty full, but it was a holiday weekend. Facing the front of the train, I sat on the left-hand side, which had great views of the mountains and the sea. From Da Nang, it is about a 40-minute ride to Hoi An.

I spent my first afternoon wandering around the picturesque, Old Town, which is characterised by its UNESCO-listed, mustard-yellow buildings and vibrant purple bougainvillea. The Old Town is closed to motor traffic but not to the constant stream of bikes and cyclos. Nonetheless, Hoi An was a lot more amenable to strolling than Hué or Saigon, especially if you go early in the morning before it gets too busy. My hotel was at the eastern edge of the town centre but was still just a 10-minute walk to the heart of the Old Town.

Hoi An Old Town
Many of the buildings in the Old Town are exquisitely preserved. To aid conservation efforts, visitors are encouraged to buy tickets to visit some of the more interesting buildings. 120,000 VND (just under £4) buys you five tickets and you can choose which ones you would like to enter during a three-day period. I visited a handful of temples, assembly halls and immaculately restored family homes. Most of them take only about 15-20 minutes to walk through.

I also enjoyed simply standing by the river and people-watching. Everyone has something to offer: a sampan ride, a ride on one of Hoi An's fleet of colourful motor boats, a floating lantern, some street food... This past weekend was a national holiday and the Vietnamese people were having a great time celebrating with their friends and family.

Japanese Covered Bridge
When I first happened upon the Japanese Covered Bridge, it was almost like being back in Cambridge again. Only, this time, I'm the tourist who won't stop taking photos! You can walk across the bridge for free although you'll have to give up one of your Old Town tickets to visit the attached temple. Like most places in Hoi An, it's even prettier when it's all lit up at night time.

Hoi An's main market is huge, covering several blocks and with vendors sprawling across the pavements and nearby roads. I walked past the fruit and veggie section each day to get into the Old Town and it was always a hive of furious activity. There are also a lot of stalls selling everything from clothing to household goods.

Across the Thu Bon river on the Cau An Hoi Bridge is the An Hoi night market. By night, the street is lit up with hundreds of colourful lanterns, which you can buy along with all manner of other goods, souvenirs and food. The atmosphere is fun and lively and people of all ages were having a good time.

Hoi An is famous for its tailors and although I didn't plan to get any clothes made while I was here, I ended up getting a silk dress that will be perfect for weddings and parties. There are hundreds of different shops in town and the choice was a little overwhelming at first. I started going into a few shops and realised that the prices were fairly consistent (among the shops that seemed to be of a similar quality) but finding a fabric I liked proved more difficult. I like bright pinks, turquoises, purples and emerald greens and I gravitate towards geometric patterns. There was very little fitting either of those requirements — most of the patterns were floral and the colours more muted than I prefer.

In the end, I found a multicoloured patterned silk I liked at Yaly Couture (47 Tran Phu) and took the plunge. I got to pick the style of the dress, customising anything I wanted, and was then measured up. They also took my mugshot in front of a height chart, but luckily no one arrested me. After the first fitting, later that day, the dress was almost right, but slightly tight around my shoulders. I also asked for the neckline to be made more rounded and for the hem to be taken up. After fitting number two, the fit was great but it was still a couple of centimetres too long. Finally, after the third fitting, it was perfect. The quality is really good (it has a lining too) and the final price was about £40. Perhaps I could have haggled more, but I was happy.

I also stopped by Cocoon (now located at 55 Tran Phu) to look at the selection of scarves. There were so many different colours and patterns, and the lovely owner, Ms Ly, showed me some of her silk worms and showed me how to test for real silk (by burning it). I had read that the prices were fixed but the quality very high, which suited me fine. There was also no pressure to buy, which made a refreshing change. I picked up a couple of different silk scarves, which were about £6 each.

Other shops I liked included: Hay Hay (155 Tran Phu) for art and design; Metiseko (142 Tran Phu) for sustainable clothing and homewares; and Reaching Out (103 Nguyen Thai Hoc) for arts and crafts.

Classes and Workshops
Hoi An is a real food hub and I thought about taking a cooking class while I was in town. I really enjoyed the one I did in Oaxaca last year and had heard good things about Ms Vy's classes in particular. In the end, though, the Hoi An Photo Tour office caught my eye and I decided to do that instead. If I'm really honest with myself, I'm much more likely to put photography training to use than cooking lessons.

Six of us met with the instructor, Etienne, who had just won an Asian photography award and was very pleased. We did one of the 'sunset' tours although there no interesting sunset and throughout, the sky remained a dull, featureless white haze. However, Etienne helped us all to make the best of the bad light and after a quick summary of some of the basics, we headed off on one of those colourful boats down the river to a nearby village. We spent three hours talking to the villagers and watching them work in the rice fields, make hay and prepare peanuts, among other things. I was a little nervous about taking portraits of people I didn't know but Etienne knows these villagers very well and they were all happy to be photographed and to chat with us.

We headed back to Hoi An for a quick workshop on night-time photography. I would have liked a little longer on this, as it's a skill I would like to improve. For a four-hour workshop, the price was 790,000 VND (about £25), which I thought was very reasonable. Etienne is a talented photographer and a good teacher and I feel as though I learnt a lot.

An Bang beach, regarded as one of the best beaches in the Hoi An area, is about three miles from the Old Town area. I thought about walking there but in the end decided to be brave and borrowed one of my hotel's bikes. A few minutes into the ride, I relaxed a little (although never taking my eyes off all of the roads!) and enjoyed the journey to the beach. Once you get past the Old Town, you can follow the same road all the way, so it's pretty easy. There are bike parks next to the beach (I paid 20,000 VND (about 60p), but you could probably get it for half that if you haggle).

On Saturday, I turned right along the beach and walked to the end of the first section of sun loungers, paid my 30,000 VND (again, you could probably negotiate if the 30p is important to you) and enjoyed some relaxation time in the sun, dipping into the sea to cool off. It was around noon when I arrived and already quite busy, but it was heaving by the time I left at about 4 pm.

When I returned on Sunday, I kept walking past the first stretch of loungers and carried on for another 300 metres or so until I reached a quieter stretch. There were maybe 10 loungers in the cluster but there were never more than four other people there (everyone was down at the other end), so it was much more peaceful. I also had a nice bowl of chicken and rice for lunch and, with a couple of drinks and my lounger/parasol rental, the total was 100,000 VND (about £3).

To vary my ride home, I cycled southeast towards Hoi An beach before turning right and following the river back into town. Both routes take you over the river and next to the rice fields, which were a gorgeous shade of rich yellow.

Other Ideas
Spa time. There are numerous spas in town, all of which claim to offer the best massages, facials, manicures and pedicures at very reasonable prices. I had planned to get a manicure but my nails are in a bit of a state at the moment so I'm holding out for Hanoi.

Sampan or boat ride along the river. You don't need to find a boat operator; they will find you.

My Son. I thought about taking a half-day tour to the ancient Cham temple complex, but I wanted a break from guided tours. You can also hire a driver or go by taxi, but if you're travelling alone, the price may be too high. Another excursion possibility is the stunning Marble Mountain. I passed it on my way to Da Nang airport and with the multi-storey pagoda balanced precariously on the side, it is an impressive sight.

In other words, you can easily spend three to five days in Hoi An and, as you'll see in my next post, there are enough restaurants to keep your tastebuds tantalised for much longer than that. The town does have a bit of a contrived, 'Disneyland' feel to it (much more so than Saigon and Hué); for instance, they pipe music through speakers throughout the Old Town and the repertoire includes Andrew Lloyd Webber, Madonna and The Beatles. Another thing that struck me was the way everyone under the age of 30 carries a selfie stick. Many of the teens — especially couples — film themselves as they walk down the street, stopping every few feet to pose for another selfie. Selfies and selfie sticks are, of course, everywhere but I've never seen this saturation before.

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