If you’re looking for the most charming little place to visit then your search is over. May I introduce Hoi An, a small town nestled along the central coast of Vietnam. One side of Hoi An boasts sandy beaches with clear water and the other side is home to the quaint old port city, and recently turned tourist hub, of Ancient Town. And to top it all off, only a short bicycle ride separates the two. Due to being a historically preserved port, the entire area has been deemed a UNESCO site, which is basically a fancy code word meaning it is the most immaculately clean and charming place ever.
Visiting Hoi An felt a lot like going through Disneyland but without all the magic. Similar to leaving the busy streets of Anaheim before making it through the magical gates to Disney happiness, in Hoi An you cross the chaotic motorbike honking streets and into the walking and bicycling only area of Ancient Town where you suddenly find yourself transported into a whole new world. Suddenly you are surrounded by beautiful yellow colonial buildings with flowers perfectly cascading down their sides and colorful lanterns strung all along the streets. An abundance of perfectly decorated cafes dot the canal and at night the water is filled with floating lanterns for good luck which gives the whole place a real romantic feel. While moseying the streets you will hear soft classical music playing throughout the town’s speakers and see couples in matching shirts strolling hand in hand or precious families entering their daily debate about where to eat their next meal. It’s easy to navigate, charming and manicured to a tee, but like Disneyland, deep down you know it isn’t entirely real.
Hoi An was an accidental destination even before I left Washington. It was my predetermined misadventure if you will. You see, I was looking to volunteer in Vietnam and decided on a cat cafe in Hanoi. Emails were sent, dates decided and that was that. A week or so later I decided to actually use my handy dandy reading skills and realized that I wasn’t to be in Hanoi at all, instead I was to be in Hoi An, which conveniently shares all the same letters as Hanoi but inconveniently happens to be in an entirely different part of the country. Frantic Google searches ensued and it seemed to be a fantastic misunderstanding because Hoi An looked even better than Hanoi and I was pretty jazzed about it. I was going to spend four weeks in paradise!
Fast forward 3 months later and I am laying on the beach enjoying my last day in Hoi An. I’d been there only two weeks. Despite its perfection, or possibly because of it, I didn’t fall in love and decided to leave a little earlier than planned.
I can’t really complain about my time here because it wasn’t all that terrible. I would bicycle to the local market and bakery in the mornings to pick up fresh food for the cafe and then I’d work a few hours preparing food and juices. Any downtime was spent petting and playing with my new furry friends. After work I would bicycle to the beach to go for a swim and lay out in the sun, which after about 27 seconds is completely unbearable for a pitiful Northwest-sun-deficient lass such as myself, and I’d be back in the water again. Once I’d completed my water-sun-water-sun routine, I’d cycle back to my homestay to take a cold shower and get some food. I could usually be found at my favorite place, Cocobox, for a delightful cocoa-banana smoothie called the Choc Norris (teehee). During my stay I also went to the Full Moon Lantern Festival (absolutely not to be confused with Thailand’s version) and some nights I would go out with new friends for beer and dancing, and for being such a sleepy town Hoi An can get surprisingly rowdy at night.
Doesn’t sound that bad, right? So… What’s the problem? Don’t worry, I’m just as confused as you are here. I guess I just wasn’t really picking up the vibe that Hoi An was putting down.
While I definitely recommend Hoi An to honeymooners and couples who want to spend a few days experiencing the Asian equivalent of Paris (and a much cleaner version at that), it was possibly the loneliest place ever for a solo traveler. Despite meeting two awesome guys that I hung out with throughout my stay (and who loved Hoi An so much that they had about 4 “last nights” because they didn’t want to leave), there was something missing for me. The work I did was cool and Emma, the one who accidentally acquired 62 cats (yes, it’s a thing), had such a passion for the little furballs, but I was the only volunteer at the cafe and not too many customers came throughout the day.
Just the little things that come with daily life there was also enough to drive me mildly batty. Spatial awareness is legitimately not a thing and in my first ten minutes in Vietnam I was elbowed, shoved and hit by bags no less than a dozen times, mostly by very small and surprisingly very strong elderly Vietnamese women. Lines were more like blobs with a lot of pushing, a motorbike has no issue barely hitting you, and street vendors and store owners like to punch your arm and shake you a bit when speaking (in a nice way, like, “hey we’ve been best friends forever, good to see you *punch* want to buy something!?”). For a girl that has a three-foot bubble around at all times, it was a little overwhelming. But that’s Asia for you!
Overall, Vietnam was an interesting place and I was mostly amused by its idiosyncratic tendencies. First, let’s just acknowledge the strangest and most awkward means of transportation that I’ve encountered to date, which I can only appropriately describe as an adult stroller taxi.
Second, I learned that there are approximately three methods to naming a shop, each varying in degrees of creativity.
1.) Randomly open the English dictionary and point at one to three words, string them together in any way desired and make a big sign. Sensical combinations not required and bonus points for creativity.
2.) Choose a name and love it so much that every shop you own shares it’s same title. Ex: the best Indian food in town is at Ganesh 1, but if you’d like you can also try Ganesh 2, 3, 4 or 5. Minimal creativity needed for this method.
3.) Look at your house number. Boom, a name appears! Ex: Cafe 15, Cafe 99, Cafe 43, Cafe 41 and Cafe 51 (and in Hoi An all of these are within 5 blocks of each other). Absolutely zero creativity required for this approach.
Less amusing and more annoying were the regulations. First, the government turns off the power every now and then for days at a time, which most importantly means no fans or AC for the stifling heat, which at 99 degrees with a feeling of around 106, was a necessity to sustain my life. Second, I couldn’t access my blog or certain other opinion-based websites due to government censorship and Facebook was even banned for a time here a year or so ago. Third, the people in charge will do what they want and you can just deal with it. While happily enjoying my Choc Norris smoothie I looked outside and saw men in white suits hauling all the bikes off the street and putting them in pick up trucks and driving away with them. Many of us ran outside to snag our bicycles and I asked one of the cafe staff what was happening. The following conversation ensued:
Lady: They take because of the full moon.
Me: The full moon isn’t for another two weeks…
Lady: Yeah, but the (*such-and-such*) holiday is next week.
Me: What? What holiday is that?
Lady: You know, the (*whatever she said*) holiday.
Me: So they’re taking our bikes today for a holiday happening here next week for the full moon in two weeks?
Lady: Uhm… Okay, I don’t really know. I’m sorry, *nervous laughter* I made all that up. I don’t know what’s happening.
I laughed, mostly at her confident attempt at an explanation and also because literally no one knows what is going on. Later that night all the power was turned off (again) and it turned out that she wasn’t entirely wrong about the full moon thing. Apparently the Prime Minister was in town that day and wanted to see the Full Moon Lantern Festival but since the full moon wasn’t for another two weeks, he made the whole town pretend it was that day instead. So he got all the bikes off the street, made the whole town dark and put up a bunch of lanterns to enjoy the full moon festival in all its waning crescent glory. Basically I learned that when controlling a country the phrase “shoot for the moon” takes on a whole new meaning.
Altogether, I am happy for the time spent here, but my heart just wasn’t it it. Could I have stuck out the whole month in Hoi An? Sure. Would I have fully enjoyed my time? Meh, not really. Sure, it isn’t that tough to stroll through a cute town then hit the beach everyday, but it was a slightly monotonous (and really, really sweaty) experience. Like Disneyland, it’s an absolutely wonderful place, but I don’t want to be at Disneyland 24-hours a day for a month straight. Just a few days will do the trick. Vietnam is a beautiful country and if I come back I would love to rent a motorbike and travel the length of the coast and stop along the way at whatever tickles my fancy; a big cave here, a sweet beach there, see big cities and visit small towns. And if I’m ever in Hoi An again I’ll be bringing lots of pictures of clothes I’ve always wanted because tailoring is THE business here- it is quick, inexpensive and anything you can dream of can literally made for your body.
It definitely proved to be a time of reflection and lesson learning (would you believe me if I told you that I just learned how to properly boil an egg..), and the most difficult decision was terminating my volunteer commitment early. But at the end of the day I need to courageously pursue my happiness and sometimes that requires making tough choices. Luckily, the cafe owner is a decent human, more so than I deserved after putting her in a bad position, and understood my decision.
So if you are looking to spend a few days in a very clean, quaint and charming Southeast Asian city look no further than Hoi An because it can deliver all that and more. But really, a couple of days is more than enough. For me, it was a toasty two weeks in Vietnam and I’m satisfied with the time spent there but happy to move on to the next adventure. I came, I saw, I conquered a bowl of pho, and really, what more could I possibly need besides that?