Vietnam 5: Hoi An

Hoi An is the place in Vietnam that everyone seems to rave about, and I can certainly see why, yet I developed a love/hate relationship with Hoi An that echoes my experience of Vietnam as a whole.

I took the No.1 (yellow) local bus from Danang to Hoi An. I had been told it would cost 25,000 (about a quid) but when I got on the woman tried to charge me 50,000 because of my big bag (despite it sitting quite nicely at the back and not taking up a seat) – I hadn’t read anything about this but it’s hard to know for sure whether that is the truth or you are bent scammed (a feeling I have become familiar with in Vietnam) but I managed to bargain down to 40,000. Who knows if I was still being ripped off but I was hot and just wanted to get to Hoi An, and the tourist bus would have cost triple that.

45 minutes later and I arrived in Hoi An, but on the outskirts of the centre. Immediately I was surrounded by motorbike taxis wanting to take me to my hostel. It was boiling hot and the walk to the centre 30 minutes at least but, as I mentioned before, you never know if you are being scammed and if you can even trust them to take you to where you say rather than on a detour to get more money from you. And the way they hover over you, watching your phone as you type into it, feels invasive and cements my stubborn nature. So I walked, in the boiling heat, with all my bags, for about an hour as all the hostels I came across were full (I’d recommend booking at least one night in advance for Hoi An) – I ended up in a homestay for 110,000 (£4) about a 20 minute walk from the centre.

Once checked in I grabbed a bite to eat across the road, opting for White Rose (popular Hoi An dish of steamed shrimp dumplings topped with crispy fried onions – delicious) before renting a bicycle for 20,000 (80p) so I could explore the city and get my bearings, but I first cycled to find a hostel more in the centre for my following 2 nights – it’s so much easier to get around – and the area has so much more energy – in the middle.

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I spent the rest of the afternoon cycling round the quaint streets, crossing the bridge over the water to enjoy a Frappucino with views of the river, and passed by the Japanese Covered Brudge – I didn’t realise what it was until later on when I deliberately went to find it, and to go inside you have to purchase a ticket for 120,000 that includes a few other sites as well, but I wanted Hoi An to be about being as well as doing so I opted out of this.

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I then cycled to Randy’s book exchange – my little bit of cool, peaceful literature heaven amongst the noise and busy-ness of the town. I perched on a seat and perked the books for a good hour, not reading the blurb on the back but the first page as I always do to see if it pulls me in and connects with me, enjoying the feel of picking up the books and turning the old, used pages, some of the books with notes scribbled on the front of where they were first purchased. Reading, and even being in book shops, offers a similar sanctuary to that of being in a church whilst tapping into my thirst for reading, opening my mind and learning. Ok, I’m a Book Geek – loud and proud. That evening I had my first ever Beef Pho – it was ok, nothing special, but food is so dependent on the restaurant you go to that I may have to try it again in order to make an informed evaluation.

Just on the outskirts of Hoi An are the My Son ruins – an ancient city that is a Unesco World Heritage Site after American bombing devastated the temples. It seemed to be one of the top things to do in Hoi An so I booked the Sunrise tour for the following morning – it cost more to go at 4:30am (and even more to get the boat back instead of the bus, which I also opted for) but after falling in love with sunsets all over the world I wanted to experience more sunrises. However, after eventually getting onto our bus at 5am it wasn’t long before the sun rose – we asked about the sunrise and were informed sunrise is too early, to which I questioned why it is called a My Son Sunrise Tour if you don’t experience the sunrise at the ruins. “Because we go early and you avoid all the tourists.” “Then call it a My Son Early Tour”. We arrived at 6am and it was scorching hot – there were literally no clouds in the sky. Maybe this impacted my experience, as did the fact I struggled to understand my tour guide, but I really didn’t feel it was worth the cost – 160,000 for the transport (which should have been 180,000 but I haggled it down at my hostel, to later find out someone else in my hostel paid the full whack…) and 150,000 to get in, totalling at 310,000 dong or £11, which is a lot for half a day on a backpacker budget.

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The boat back to Hoi An was interesting, but mainly because the drive was so committed to his job…

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Hoi An is well known for its tailors and tourists being lured in to purchased custom-made suits, coats of dresses for at least half the price of what they would pay at home and then shipping them back. I’ve never been one of those to shop on holiday – I went to New York for a week without leaving half my suitcase empty to later fill with all my cheaper purchases like so many people I know. It’s just not my thing. So I went to Hoi An with the knowledge of the shopping potential but not in the least bit interested. And then I walked past a shop on my way back to my hostel, with only 45 minutes to pack and check out as I was changing hostels, and saw a bikini I liked. I only have one bikini with me (I stupidly brought a white one, which got dirty ridiculously quick) and the shop owner could clearly detect the interest in my eyes and quickly pounced. 15 minutes later I had selected a pattern from the array of materials she had on offer, had my measurements taken and ordered a custom-made bikini to be collected the next day. As I was in a rush I didn’t haggle as much as I should (or could) have done, paying £12 – expensive for there but cheap for at home (where you would never get a bikini made to fit!) She then threw me on the back of her motorbike to get me to my hostel in time. I should also mention that when I went to collect the bikini the next day she had to make an adjustment to the top (she put in padding when I asked for none) and she caught me spying a strappy racer green dress. I casually mentioned it was too long and I was looking for something shorter – a rookie mistake that she leapt on, whipping the dress off the mannequin, grabbing her scissors and cutting off the bottom before using her sewing machine to hem the bottom, all done in under a minute. I loved it and got her down from 200,000 to 150,000 (£5.25). Oh and I also bought a plain bright green vest, a red, patterned strapped long dress and a short black and green strappy dress. Like I said, I’m not much of a shopper.

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After collecting my bikini and dress I cycled 15 minutes to An Bang beach – I had to pay 5,000 (20p) to park my bicycle and walked 10 minutes down the beach to a whole area all to myself, haggling over the pic of a sun bed (down from 30,000 to 20,000). It was lovely to spend the afternoon reading (with my favourite Hoi An purchase, a bamboo bookmark) and taking time out from the pressure of the city. At around 5pm, however, it started to get really noisy – the beach became filled with locals, bringing picnics, alcohol and music, to the point where I literally had to weave through to leave. It then took me 10 minutes to locate my bicycle amongst all the mopeds that had appeared, and another 10 minutes to navigate the bicycle out. I don’t know if they all head to the beach for sunset, but I was happy to escape and cycle the cool journey back to the hostel.

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A lot of my time in Hoi An (aside from the cycling, shopping and beaching) was spent wandering around the quaint shops, drinking coffee at bars along the riverside, eating cake and drinking Vietnamese iced black coffee at Cargo (delicious), dining at Bale Well (where, for 120,000 – £4.50 – you are given rice paper, kitchen, grilled pork, barbecued pork, spring rolls, lettuce and sauce to make your very own pancakes), going to the night market and for drinks with Mart and Tommy (a couple of guys I met in my hostel), trying Com Ga (a dish of chicken and rice, which I found really bland) and taking part in a cooking class.

There are so so many cooking classes on offer in Hoi An, ranging from 300,000 to 1,000,000 dong and for between 2 and 5 hours, but I decided on Vy’s Market Street Food Cooking School (which used to be Morning Glory Cooking School, and Morning Glory is a top rated restaurant n Hoi An) for 700,000 dong (£24.50) for 5 hours. We started off going to the food market to learn about the ingredients they use and why, then headed back to the restaurant to sample an array of their dishes (including duck egg embryo – quite a rich flavour – pig tongue – really tasty – and pig brain – good flavour but weird texture) before taking part in a 2 hour cooking class. Our chef/teacher was warm, friendly and informative, assisting us all as we made our dishes, and it was really fun. Having spent 10 weeks travelling with practically everywhere offering a cooking class, I’m glad I held out until now.

The thing about Hoi An that I really struggle with is the way they treat tourists and tourism. Firstly, you are hassled at every corner either to go on a motorbike somewhere, to take a boat ride, or to come into their shop, and people often only help you if you are lost or looking for somewhere because they then want something from you (usually to buy something from them) and actually get angry with you, or rude, if you don’t make a purchase with them. When I got back to my hostel after collecting my bikini, the hostel manager asked me where I had been and when I told her she looked at my bikini and said, straight to my face, “at my shop you would pay cheaper and it be much nicer than THIS”.
Secondly, you have to haggle over absolutely everything. I’m used to bargaining at markets and that’s fine, but here you haggle over the price of your hostel, street food, or I even had to haggle over a can of Coke as it was clearly way overpriced. Hoi An sell wooden hand-held fans for 15-30 ,000 literally everywhere and when I finally decide to give in and buy one, the stall I am at tries to charge me 70,000; she chose to start ridiculously high knowing she would get less than that but more than I really should pay. I literally refused to pay more than 20,000 and she accepted in the end, knowing it was a fair price, but it can get ridiculous and tiring. Lush it is difficult knowing what is the appropriate or acceptable price in each place so it can take a while to get used to the currency and the going rate, and to be confident in knowing how much you are prepared to spend and not budging on that.
But it’s exhausting, frustrating and time-consuming, and you either walk away feeling proud and like you have achieved something or dismayed and as though you have been swindled. It can get really tiring that you just want out for a while and almost refuse to purchase anything anywhere, wishing for once that there was a flat rate for everything even if the prices were like back home. At least you know where you stand and that it is a fair price everyone else is also paying, rather than the feeling you have been taken for a ride, even if that meant paying 180,000 for the My Son ruins like the guy at my hostel. Because the sad part is it taints the Vietnam experience when it is such an incredibly beautiful and diverse place, and it is makes you not trust the locals when many Vietnamese are actually so so lovely.

I also need to be honest (what is the point of blogging my experience otherwise?!) and say that Hoi An can be quite magical, but I also felt divided by that at times – there isn’t necessarily loads to “do”, it’s more of a lovely place to be, and at times I guess it would have been nice to have someone with me – not a boyfriend as such but even a good friend – to enjoy and share in it with. Don’t get me wrong it’s wonderful to explore on your own and take it all in and I really enjoyed spending time by the river (plus I’m aware that getting over a recent breakup and dealing with the personal issues I subsequently have about my self-worth and validity outside of one will have likely exacerbated these feelings for me,) but in a place with so many families, couples and groups of friends it can emphasise your sense of one-ness. That, and my newly discovered most common response when booking tours, going to restaurants or getting transport to the next destination now being “No, just me”.

A place that I found at once peaceful and frustrating, as with so many places in Vietnam thus far (excluding Danang), Hoi An is somewhere I will always remember with mixed feelings, yet I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as an incredible place to visit.

 

LS.

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