#011: Visiting Hoi An, VietnamTak's dispatch released on 6 January 2015

Thiền Viện Bồ Đề

The train comes to a stop in Da Nang, a clean, modern-feeling coastal city between Hanoi and Saigon. You step off the train without any good option to get to Hoi An, a historic town approximately 30 minutes by car to the south.

There is a local bus (Bus 1 – sometimes appropriately described as the Yellow Bus) that runs along a road close to the Da Nang train station and continues to Hoi An. Unfortunately, the price is highly variable for non-locals, sometimes 30,000VND, sometimes 50,000VND, sometimes 100,000VND and so forth. It involves hopping aboard and either paying the price given to you or trying to successfully negotiate with the fare collector (hoping you won’t be tossed off the bus somewhere less convenient than where you started).

There is taxi service which costs something around 250,000VND. When dealing with a reputable company, like Mai Linh, this is a great choice for efficiency but is the least economical, especially for only one person.

There are also some pre-arranged shuttles that operate between Hoi An and Da Nang. Unfortunately, these are very popularly advertised online and thus it is hard to track down the information that comes in handy, such as when they operate and how much they cost. One such shuttle by a company called Go Travel Vietnam in Hoi An is talked about online, but when you tried calling them numerous times to set something up, there was no answer.

You step off the train, cross over the adjacent train tracks on foot, climb up onto the platform and pass through the train station building finding yourself outside in perfect weather (despite it being in the middle of rainy season). You walk by the taxicabs and the touts in the general direction of Local Bus 1.

As you walk, you notice a guy with weathered, deep-creased skin, yellowed, crooked teeth, a diminutive stature and energetic zeal.

“How much for a ride to Hoi An,” you ask, noting his motorcycle. He mentions some numbers and you quickly get him down to 200,000VND without much effort, which at least is cheaper than the taxi. But you still aren’t sure about that direction.

“We do 200,000VND and we stop for beers that I pay for,” he counteroffers. “And we go to Marble Mountain…”

“No, I just want to go from here to Hoi An, direct,” you interject, seeing that a tour guide package is starting to develop with this character.

“Direct? Then you go by car with my friend”

“How much and where is your friend?”

“He is over there,” he mentions pointing in the direction of the train station. “200,000VND,” he adds.

“No, no, I go local bus, I go local bus,” you sputter, in simplified English.

“Okay, okay,” he yells running after you. “150,000VND for car”

“Direct, air-con, private car from here to Hoi An for 150,000VND?” you confirm. He confirms.

“Okay, so then where is your friend? And where is your friends car…”

Just as you are about to walk away from the whole thing, a kid around 25-years old with a haircut that would fit into a southern California surfing collective appears, jogging towards the street with keys in hand.

“Is that your friend?”

“Yes, yes”

You now feel much more comfortable. Everything looks and feel legit, but you can’t be 100% sure based on looks alone. You decide to roll the dice.

“Is music okay?” A Queen CD spits out from the CD player.

“Sure, whatever is fine.”

The ocean breeze is circulating through the car as you roar southwards along the road which runs along the beach. Vietnamese dance music kicks out from the speakers. He turns it up. This is living.

A well-preserved historic town that draws a fair amount of tourism attention is typically a place you avoid. But here you are, in a very laid-back town. The chill vibe, the stucco architecture, the weather and the coastal location make Hoi An feel very much like California, while still retaining its Vietnamese touch.

Hoi An Vietnam

You stay outside of the historic town in a guesthouse. It takes about 15 minutes to walk into the heart of the historic district. But like Can Tho, and unlike Saigon and Hanoi, no one hassles you for anything. The feeling is very relaxed. You pass by a plethora of tailors and such here: tailors making silk apparel, tailors making bikinis, tailors making suits, tailors making dresses, cobblers making shoes.

You don’t really love the historic district too much as you wander through it. It seems lacking authentic charm. The chill-vibe is nice, and the cleanliness and layout is nice, but it isn’t anything extraordinary. Hot from the direct sun, you head south over the so-called Japanese Bridge and head towards the water, hoping to find a beach.

Perched at the end of the street on the left sits a restaurant. You note a Vietnamese lady inside. You hate when touts and store owners yell out to you on the street to visit. Typically, you spy a place, think about going in, get yelled at by over-ambitious employees and then decide to scratch the visit altogether.

As you walk by, this lady runs out from her restaurant. Perhaps she is yelling to look at the menu, or to try out a certain dish or who knows—your mind blocks it all out. For some reason, despite the place looking like a tourist restaurant, you ask her for the price of cold beer or water. She gets even more excited, like a fisherman who has landed a hook. She tugs on the rod, reeling furiously. Her price is reasonable enough, the sun is hot enough, the glint in her eye says to sit down.

Crispy Spring Rolls in Hoi An

Sharp as a knife, she pulls up a fan, serves a cold beverage and then waits just long enough before pulling out the menu. After passing over a fair number of food choices, you order some seafood spring rolls. She disappears into the kitchen and after a short while, arrives with six excellent spring rolls. The exterior covered in a crunchy latticework layer of what appears to be a rice-base, the interior flavourful and just perfect for the occasion.

After a long chat covering a vast array of topics, it is time to head off. Even though she was aggressive up front, and even though the restaurant looks like it only exists for tourists, it is a very special place. In fact, after thinking about it, you realize this is the only restaurant you’ve been to in Vietnam that caters virtually exclusively to tourists.

“When you get hungry, you come back and I will take care of you,” she instructs. “You are my long-lost son”

Cars and motorbikes race by on the main road out of Hoi An. Ten minutes into the walk, after some photography, a steamroller appears and runs at your walking speed, while belching out exhaust. You spy a dirt road that runs off to the right of the main road. Generally, you are heading for the beach, suggested to you by both the restaurant lady and a razor-sharp girl in Saigon, and it appears that dirt road will do the trick. You cross the street.

Hoi An Locals

Pretty soon, you are in the middle of rice paddies and wetlands with water buffalo and villagers dotting the scenery. The sun beats down strongly as you continue along. You come to a body of water just off the road that has perhaps ten villagers in it. They hold what appears like upside down apple baskets. As they step, they slosh the basket in one hand down. When the next foot steps, the other basket is forced to the pond bottom as the other is lifted up. Like watching a machine; slosh, slosh, slosh, slosh with a perfect rhythm. Every so often, they bend over, and grab their catch and put it into a pouch around their waste.

You continue on to find several villages in another body of water. They creep along until one decides he is in a good place, lifts a well folded net and allows it to fly from his hand. The net unfurls, the edges sink to the bottom and he draws it up looking for catch. You continue on, alongside catch-laden villagers, on their way to market.

By the time you arrive at Cua Dai Beach, you have obtained enough sun exposure for the day, all to the right side of your face. A couple peddlers try to sell you trinkets: bracelets, lighters, greeting cards, cigarettes. The far right side of the beach (if looking at the water) is in disarray, due apparently to some bad storms/waves. Much of the sandy beach apparently was taken out to see. But otherwise, you find a very nice beach. A pair of restaurant beach huts have some sun chairs out front. Further down, a hotel or two. But otherwise, it is a very natural feeling beach. Perhaps because you are there in the rainy season the feeling is different, but it is a naturally-beautiful remote beach.

Beach in Hoi An

The most commercialized part of Cua Dai Beach

You amble up to the first shack you pass and ask for their menu. The choice is made simple as the cold drinks are priced very reasonably and the drinks come out cold. You take shelter under an umbrella, fend off the last one or two peddlars and wait for the sun to weaken. In all, there are no more than 20 people visible on the beach at any one time.

Ocean Fisherman in Hoi An

A local fisherman with his fishing boat.

Hoi An Workers Building Road

One the way back to the guesthouse, you take a different route home, once again through the dirt paths and country scenery that is filled with interesting activity: small-scale citrus farms, villagers building a dirt road, fisherman fishing with poles, families of ducks swimming and that one super-aggressive dog.

For the super-early flight out the next day, you book a shared van for the ride from Hoi An to the Da Nang airport, at 110,000VND ($5USD) for door-to-door service.

Rather than walk on the normal roads to get back to the historic district, you head the other direction to catch a dirt path. The night is dark, and there are no street lights on the path. You stare at it from the shadows. “Should I do this? Should I just reserve course and take the easy, lit, normal road” you wonder. One step in front of another, you head down the dark, dirt-path.

Lanterns in Hoi An, Vietnam

Lanterns sold in downtown Hoi An

About a third of the way, you come upon a temple or shrine of some sort, which is lit. A quite interesting sight against the dark sky and moon. You continue forward, passing a pair of villagers who are quite surprised to see you walking on this road. You come to a clearing, where tall grasses blow in the gentle breeze and the stars coat the sky. You stop and just look around. All alone in the quiet night air under a sky of stars. You take it all in, and continue forward.

You step up into the restaurant, passing two tables of tourists outside and the restaurant lady’s daughter. She peaks out from the back of the kitchen, sees you and comes running out.

“My Son, you have returned!” she exclaims and gives a hug. “You can sit outside.”

“I will sit inside, I’d rather,” you explain and take a seat at a table closer to the kitchen. You setup a fan, saving her the work this time.

“Do you want a cold drink?”

“Is it the same price as yesterday?”

“Do not worry, you are family.”

The next thing you know, her brother has arrived. He pulls two drinks out of the fridge and pops the tops. A banana flower shrimp salad shows up on the table, and he hands you chopsticks and a plate. With the sweep of the hand he communicates that you are invited to share the meal. He yells something in Vietnamese and a basket of tortilla chips arrives. Following his lead, you try a chip dipped in the shrimp salad; a perfect pairing.

He puts on the Vietnam soccer match and you watch that. Food, drinks, sports—no language is even necessary to understand. The lady comes back out from the kitchen with a large plate piled with octopus and a bright-eyed smile. “This is for you,” she excitedly proclaims, and sets it down in front of you.

Octopus Dish in Hoi An, Vietnam

At the end of the meal, you try to pay but she refuses the first handful of attempts.

“You are family. Family eats free.”

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Tak

New York, NY
Internationally-published photographer with a passion for creative food, fine products, unique cultures and underground music. Twitter / Instagram / Email

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