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Hoi An: Quite Possibly the Most Adorable City in Vietnam

December 4- 8
By Noelle

 

image_1Ah Hoi An…a tremendously atmospheric city filled with brightly-colored lanterns, amazing regional Vietnamese food and custom-made clothing. Where the smell of leather wafts from every other shop front, and the noodles are made lovingly with the water brought up from the ancient Ba Le Well at the center of town. And our four-day stay was plenty of time to see it all.

First of all, we found a place with a pool! Which we never used! But yay – a pool! That aside, the in-room breakfast delivery was enough to lock these weary travelers in, and we spent our lazy mornings on the balcony as we plotted our daily attack of this centuries-old city.

But it LOOKS so refreshing, right??

But it LOOKS so refreshing, right??

Bus 2 copyTo back up a moment, we hopped an overnight bus from Hanoi (where we had begrudgingly returned to from beautiful Halong Bay…well not completely begrudgingly, as we chose to snag one more night of Hanoi’s street food paradise by pushing our bus to Hoi An back another day…but you get the sentiment), our first foray into the world of Vietnamese overnight buses. We would soon qualify for their frequent rider card as we made our way overland across the country, but for now, it was “fun!” You mean we get to lounge on these comfy red seats and basically LAY DOWN ON A BUS!?! How unique! How kitschy! I could do this forever! (Let’s just say it only goes downhill…but more on that later.).

 

What to do with all the extra leg room?

What to do with all the extra leg room?

Hoi An, the skinny waistline of Vietnam, is an excellently-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port (where it reigned between the 15th and 19th centuries) that oozes old world charm. Basically forgotten as other ports gained prominence (and the river basically silted up), the streets of Hoi An are stuck in time, making it a shoo-in for the coveted UNESCO World Heritage site status (we can’t escape these things). One of the wealthiest towns in Vietnam, it claims a cosmopolitan feel with its pristine maintenance still making you a believer in time travel.

A tree-lined welcome.

A tree-lined welcome.

The river that formerly contributed to the town's port dominance.

The river that formerly contributed to the town’s port dominance.

Daytime street view.

Textile shops and cafes line the narrow streets. No motor vehicles are allowed in the UNESCO protected part of the town.

Just outside of town, a local woman tends to the waterlogged rice fields.

Just outside of town, a local woman tends to the waterlogged rice fields.

Our time here consisted of roaming the quaint narrow lanes, exploring the endless shops, strolling along the Thu Bon River and basically continuing our quest to eat our way through Vietnam. And an added bonus? We caught back up with Brenda and Pat (who we enjoyed some adventures with in Luang Prabang) for a couple epic meals.

Hoi An's Central Market - the best place to check out the local produce offerings and grab a delicious meal cooked right at your table.

Hoi An’s Central Market – the best place to check out the local produce offerings and grab a delicious meal cooked right at your table.

The main meal to note is Ba Le Well Restaurant. We thought India knew how to force-feed us at the speed of light. This was before we met our attentive (bordering on stalker) waitress for the evening. Not only does food arrive before you can even ask for a menu (it’s assumed you want the preset menu unless you speak up fast…and forcibly), but she insisted on basically helping the food into your mouth, all while touching it with bare hands…because THAT’S HOW IT’S DONE HERE AND YOU JUST HAVE TO GET OVER IT. Ahem, sorry, it’s a mantra I’ve repeated for myself and I thought it might help here. (EDITOR’S NOTE: By “your mouth” she means “Dave’s mouth.” I was the only (un)lucky one in the bunch who had skewers of pork and a rice paper wrapped roll shoved into my mouth by our waitress. The awkwardness was compounded by the fact that there were no smiles to spare while she placed the food in my mouth. Which, yeah.). Anyway, after a few beers, this seemed like pretty much the funniest evening we’d ever had and I must say, will be a dining experience I treasure forever.

The DIY (for the most part) spread.

The DIY (for the most part) spread. Thit nuong (grilled pork), Ram cuon (spring rolls), Nem nuong (grilled pork with sate) and a plethora of greens and sauces. Not pictured: Bahn Xeo (rice pancake).

Who says you shouldn't play with your food?

Who says you shouldn’t play with your food?

Empty skewers: proof of damage.

Empty skewers: proof of damage.

Happy (and stuffed) customers.

Happy (and stuffed) customers.

Back to the city’s culture…because that’s why we’re here…the traditional Vietnamese architecture, with splashes of Japanese and Chinese influence, is evident in the buildings that line the narrow streets. The peeling yellow walls give an impression they’re striping away layers of history before your eyes. A favorite stop is the Japanese Covered Bridge, built by the – you guessed it – Japanese in the 1590s. Even after reconstructions over the centuries, the ornamental design remains faithful to the original. Its beauty has established the bridge as an icon of the city.

Japanese Covered Bridge

Japanese Covered Bridge

A quick rest turned into an awesome photo opp.

A quick rest turned into an awesome photo opp.

Peaceful stroll by the river.

Peaceful stroll by the river.

Love the mix of influence on the architecture. Although we can't seem to escape power lines.

Love the mix of influence on the architecture. Although we can’t seem to escape power lines.

The Central Market is filled with women selling fresh meat, fruit and vegetables.

The Central Market is filled with women selling fresh meat, noodles, fruit and vegetables.

But my favorite? The lanterns! They’re everywhere and they’re so PRETTY. As if Hoi An at night could get any more precious, these colorful, bulbous accessories hang from every tree, every lamp post and every awning in the small downtown area.

Silk and paper lanterns light up the streets at night.

Silk and paper lanterns light up the streets at night.

One of the more intricate designs.

One of the more intricate designs.

Some even got in the holiday spirit.

Some even got in the holiday spirit.

Sorry for the volume of lantern photos - but they're so darn PRETTY.

Sorry for the volume of lantern photos – but they’re so darn PRETTY.

The waterfront on the opposite side of the bridge was filled with restaurants and bars, lit with lanterns.

The waterfront on the opposite side of the bridge was filled with restaurants and bars, lit with lanterns.

One of the popular river attractions are the floating lanterns. You can purchase one from one of the dozen vendors and they'll help you place it in the water and set it afloat. It's meant to bring luck to the sender.

One of the popular river attractions is the floating lanterns. You can purchase a small flaming vessel from one of the dozen vendors and they’ll help you place it in the water and set it afloat. It’s meant to bring luck to the sender.

After getting our fill of the town, we hopped on the hotel’s free bikes (Seriously, a pool AND free bikes? We heart you Grassland Hotel! Write soon.) and headed out of the city limits for the beach. The first time we were joined by Pat and Brenda, and after finding a wind-whipped spot on the sandy beach, we lounged as we watched the waves lap the white sand. And we couldn’t resist some fresh crab, so we ordered as best we could and kept our fingers crossed for what would make it to the table. Upside? It wasn’t still moving when it hit our plates. Downside? We all spent about 30 minutes decimating our shelled critters. Fruits of our labor? About a pinch of meat. Sigh. But it was, indeed, fresh.

Dave and Pat lead the 2-wheeled charge to the beach.

Dave and Pat lead the 2-wheeled charge to the beach.

Cloudy day at An Bang Beach

Cloudy day at Cua Dai Beach

Anticipating our crab's arrival.

Lunch at the beach. Anxiously anticipating our crab’s arrival.

Looks mouth-watering right? And that's pretty much how it stayed. The tamarind marinade at least made the few bites quite flavorful. But hey, it's crab on a beach, sooooo....

Looks mouth-watering right? And that’s pretty much how it stayed. The tamarind marinade at least made the few bites quite flavorful. But hey, it’s crab on a beach, sooooo….

On our short morning ride  to the beach our last morning, we stumbled across a group of local kids singing "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" on repeat. Pretty much just what we needed being so far from home over the holidays.

On our short morning ride to An Bang beach our last morning, we stumbled across a group of local kids singing “We Wish You A Merry Christmas” on repeat. Pretty much just what we needed being so far from home over the holidays.

Biking the dusty roads.

Biking the dusty roads.

And no, we did NOT have anything custom-made, which will make Hoi An fanatics freak. This is THE PLACE to have custom dresses, suits, pants, shirts and leather briefcases or shoes made on the cheap. But honestly – we just couldn’t lug anything around for the remaining 5 months of our trip…and even more honestly, MORE MONEY FOR FOOD! Luckily, Pat and Brenda were heading home soon, so they indulged and we got to partake in the results and a second-hand experience of how fun the process can be. Picking your own textiles and being measured for something that fits you perfectly? Pretty amazing stuff. Next time, Hoi An. Next time.

And of course, I must give a shout out to the local food specialties. Because that’s what we do. Eat. And this place offered some incredibly delicious local fare. First up: Cau Lau. The steamed, chewy noodles made locally with water from the Ba Le Well sport bits of flat crispy “croutons” (made from the same dough as the noodles), crunchy greens, juicy pork and just a touch of pork broth at the bottom. Topped with a spritz of lime and a dash of chili paste, it quickly became a Bauer favorite. Sadly, it’s availably primarily in this area and we’ve been hard pressed to find the dish as we moved south.

Cau Lau

Readers, meet Cau Lau. It’s best eaten hot from one of the market stalls.

Drying noodles.

Drying noodles.

Next are the apps. And Dave and I love us some apps (we’ve never met a plate of nachos we haven’t liked). First, we have White Rose dumplings, made from translucent white dough and filled with spiced minced shrimp or pork. It’s incredible (try Ms. Ly’s – it was our favorite spot for this dish). Fried Wontons was the final mouth-watering dish to cross our table, and these oversized tortillas stuffed with pork and shrimp and topped with a tomato roulade put Chicago’s Duck Walk wontons to shame. (Side note – please don’t tell Duck Walk I said what I did. Because we plan to go back to eating there once a week upon return. Thank you.)

White Rose

White Rose

Fried Wontons

Fried Wontons

Overall, Hoi An scored big in our book, but no need to allocate more than a few days to this historical spot. And while the streets are definitely filled with travelers from around the world, something about the volume of locals and the laid back atmosphere exempts it from having that ever-feared “touristy” feel. And now we board another overnight bus…where we learned first-hand the lack of personal boundaries in Vietnam.

What do you think?

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2 notes

  1. Stroking the embers of December | Best Kind of Lost reblogged this and added:

    […] On our last morning in Hoi An, Dave and I saddled up on the guesthouse’s bikes and pedaled out to An Bang beach. After reaching […]

  2. We Like It. We Like It Dalat. | Best Kind of Lost reblogged this and added:

    […] we did and didn’t do in Dalat, let’s talk about how we got here. As Noelle mentioned in her Hoi An post we have taken up the habit of traveling via overnight bus, and our trek to Dalat was a doozy. We […]