Impressions of Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An was a late addition to our itinerary. Sure, we had seen the UNESCO World Heritage former port listed in our guide books and referenced in some articles as a good day trip from Da Nang. I had read much more about the former capital city of Hue, a few hours north. Hoi An registered in my research as little more than a good stopping point to book-end a journey between Hue and Da Nang along the coast and over the Hai Van pass. Then I got an email full of SE Asia tips from an old friend who used to live in Hong Kong. Her words: "Get clothes made in Bangkok, unless you are gong to Hoi An. Then get clothes made there." I was intrigued.

Our trip had already ballooned to nearly four weeks and it still felt like we would be rushing too much from place to place. Something had to go. We read more. We debated. We looked at flickr. In the end, we cut Hue and the journey along the coast in favor of a relaxed four nights in Hoi An. I am so glad we did.

I am on a Jetstar flight now, Da Nang behind me, trading Hoi An for Ha Noi. Excited for what's next, but a little sad to be leaving Hoi An. Setting aside the distance, I would come back here in a heartbeat.

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The town doesn't put its age on display. On first impression, it's a little bit Epcot Center, with its clean streets, colorful buildings, Japanese bridge over a lazy river, and abundant paper lanterns sporting the flag colors and names of countries half way round the world. The town is bigger than I expected--perhaps twenty leisurely minutes to walk across in any direction. There are no cars allowed on the streets at the heart of the town, but most of the traffic even in surrounding areas has only two wheels anyway: for every car, I counted roughly a dozen bicycles and twenty motorbikes. 

There is a constant cacophony of horns as drivers indicate their intention to pass. Honks last just long enough to cross from a friendly "Hi there!" to a gruff "Watch it!" Necessarily so when the right of way belongs to the group with the highest mass, the rules of the road being "don't hit anyone, don't get hit." Most traffic does pause at the four stop lights in town, fluid schools of motorbikes, bicycles, cars, and pedestrians vibrating tension for the light to change, the occasional breakout who just ignores the color entirely. People careen out from sidewalks, alleys, and around corners with a honk, then continue the wrong way down the side of the road until they can work their way across traffic. Groups of people ride in parallel and carry on their conversations, being passed by someone(s) veering into the the theoretical other lane. Perhaps half the bikes carried more than one rider: another perched on the back, feet on the pedals moving with the driver. Motorbikes frequently carried three, sometimes four: mom, dad, two little girls, and a tiny dog. Even the local cops rode two to a bike, the guy in back lazily thumping his bully stick against his leg as they rode along.

But then, there is the complete peace of the beaches just a few miles away: Cua Dai and, just to the north, China Beach. We had miles of perfect sand nearly to ourselves.

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The streets of town are lined with tailor shops and art galleries, the sidewalks full of bikes and motorbikes for rent ($1 and $5 a day for us) and little food stands roasting corn on the cob, grilling skewered meats, or dishing up noodles. I had marked the location of a recommended snack spot on our map with a reminder to look for the tiny red plastic stools. Useless! The ten inch high seats are everywhere, people eating with knees almost to noses. Everyone calls out "You buy  something!" (what an odd phrase to have converged on) but here, No actually seems to mean No. Only rarely did a pitch carry on after politely declining.

The people we met were friendly, helpful, and curious, to the point that we often questioned whether they were selling something we didn't yet know about. Riding a motorbike down the highway that parallels the coast to Da Nang, two women pulled up on a bike next to us. The one in her late twenties struck up a conversation, wanting to know where we were from, our names, where we were heading, how long we had been in town. The forty-something driver introduced herself as Lee, chiming in that she lives in Marble Mountain and we should stop there before the beach. We passed them a little later; they zoomed back by so that they could signal for us to turn when we got to Marble Mountain. We kept right on going, never finding out whether they had something to sell us in town.