Hoi An: first contact

This morning I jumped out of bed to see if I could take a quick dip in the pool before leaving. Nope. Still cloudy and cold. Three days in a paradise resort with a dreamy ocean-blue 40 m pool and I didn’t even get a foot in! (It goes without saying that the sun parted the clouds the moment I got into the car to leave.)

So today I left Hue for Hoi An. The two cities are really pretty close but there’s no direct public transportation between the two. There are trains and buses that link Hue and Da Nang, and then from Da Nang there are buses to Hoi An. What many people do instead is either rent a car or hire a driver to make the trip faster and more direct. Because I’m a spoiled urbanite, I opted for the second choice, which has the added benefit of being able to take the Hai Van pass in the mountains, where the ruins of some American bunkers from the war overlook both sides of the mountain right before Da Nang. The drive also takes you past the fishing village of Lang Co and the Marble Mountains. The view is nice but the drive feels long, at three and a half hours to cover a distance that on the map seems a lot shorter! I think we spend pretty much the entire time driving at 40 or 50 km/h, as I kept surreptitiously looking a the dashboard.

All told, I arrived at my hotel, Hoi An Chic, at around 13:30, where I unpacked and headed to town. Like in Hue, I’m staying outside the city proper, so the hotel offers a free shuttle service to and from the town. These guys take you to the city in a Jeep -as in, an actual, bona fide American Army Jeep salvaged from the Vietnam War. It’s certainly striking to see but very rickety to ride on!
I have today and all day tomorrow here, before going to HCMC. I had briefly considered the possibility of power-visiting Hoi An today, then going on a tour of the My Son sanctuary tomorrow. My Son (pronounced mee-sœn) is a cluster of Cham ruins; the Cham were a civilization that ruled central Vietnam in the 7th through 10th centuries and who built a vast network of Hindu temples and shrines in the area. It’s a place of astounding archeological value, but for tourists I’m not sure if there’s a lot to visit. For once the French actively worked to protect and restore the ruins, French archeologists having realised the relevance of the site, but it was for naught: the sanctuary was repeatedly carpet-bombed by the Americans during the war. Entire thousand-year-old sanctuaries were reduced to rubble, and today we only know what they look like by French drawings from the 19th century. So much history, lost… Even today apparently there are large areas around the valley that are unsafe due to unexploded artillery.
When I got off in Hoi An and saw how pretty it is, I decided I’d give My Son a pass and stay here instead. So I left all the proper sightseeing for to tomorrow and just walked!

Hoi An was a major port around the 14th-16th centuries and flourished thanks to Japanese and Chinese trade, but apparently the seafloor level rose in the 19th, ships could no longer reach the city, and it decayed. It was only in 1992 that somehow tourism started flowing through the well preserved historical quarter of the city and there’s been a residential and economical boom ever since.

It’s certainly the touristiest place I’ve seen so far in Vietnam, that’s for sure. Even in the touristy areas of Hanoi you could see lots of Vietnamese people just going about their daily lives; here there isn’t a place in the old quarter that isn’t geared to Western or Asian tourists. But you know what? I loved it all the same -the streets are closed to traffic! You had me at hello! Thanks to that this was the first place in Vietnam where I was able to just take a stroll, looking at stores, actual stores that you can walk into and not just planks of Chinese knockoffs on the street (though there’s that, too). And cafés, lots of cafés to sit down and have a cuppa while you rest.

I began by having a late lunch at the Mermaid Restaurant, self-proclaimed to be the first actual restaurant to serve foreigners in Hoi An (in 1992…). The food was tasty, but not amazing. I then took a walk down Nguyen Thai Hoc, one of the two main shopping streets, and indeed both sides are lined with stores of varying quality, from the high-end to the tourist traps. I found two Fair Trade handicrafts shops with beautiful things that allegedly return all profit to the workers. I stocked up on omiyage for people who may be reading this right now!

The other main artery is Tran Phu, which runs parallel to Thai Hoc, and it has just as many trinket stores plus a lot of cafés. I found one that had chocolate cake and jumped on it -I think this may have been the first time I’ve seen proper chocolate in Vietnam! I’m at that point where I crave Western food again. It happened to me in Japan, that after a week of noodles and rice -however delicious and nutritional- I started getting the overwhelming urge to bite into a pizza or a burger or a bowl of pasta!

The streets are crisscrossed overhead by courful lanterns. When it turned dark, people flocked from the shopping streets out onto the bank of the river, and all the lanterns turned on, making a beautiful landscape of people having dinner, lights everywhere, sanpans sailing along the river… It’s really an enchanting atmosphere.
I rode on the Jeep back to the hotel for dinner. Tomorrow I’ll be more disciplined and go visit the diffrent Chinese guild houses and learn a bit of history!

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