Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Hoi An

Hoi An (Hội An) in 1991 was one of the highlights of my Vietnamese sojourn. In the intervening years, it has become a must-see destination on the backpacker trail. I had heard of its development into a tourist locale, and was curious to see how much of its historical charm had been lost.
It took me five minutes to hate the place. With store owners and street vendors harassing pedestrians every ten feet, I felt like a walking wallet. The broken English everywhere – "Hello, you buy my shop" – added to my feeling of estrangement. I was no longer an expat with decent language skills living in and partaking of  Vietnam; I was an outsider, shoved to the other side of the fence from an area I'd grown accustomed to playing in.
Sure, sure, the town is beautiful. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site for a reason. As a major Southeast Asian trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries, Hoi An's architecture reflects layers of multicultural influences. Its wooden shops and rolling alleys, along with architectural gems like the 17th century Japanese covered bridge all make the town worth a stop. Women in conical hats ply the Thu Bon River (Song Thu Bon) in narrow wooden boats and I'll be damned if it isn't picturesque.
Truth be told, I made my peace with Hoi An once the initial shock had worn off. As tourist locales go, the town is better than most. The cyclo drivers are mostly courteous, and the initially aggressive store owners actually take "no" for an answer. Once I settled into the place, I thoroughly enjoyed my overpriced-but-delicious coffee and croissants at the neat riverside restaurant with the English-speaking staff and tasteful decor.
Hoi An's beach deserves special mention. It is quite simply one of the best beaches I've been to, with clean sands, perfectly warm water, few tourists, and oceanview restaurants serving astounding seafood at reasonable prices. If you did nothing more than enjoy a beach holiday in Hoi An, it would be all right.
But I now begin to understand the negative reports I've heard from travellers passing through Vietnam. For the average vacationer who follows the tourist trail from Hanoi to Saigon, hitting Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay, and Sapa, Vietnam must seem an endless barrage of street touts and price-gougers. The open frankness I enjoy in the Vietnamese character, when applied to tourists, becomes a direct assault on your wallet. It could wear anyone down.
Just remember that basing your opinion of Vietnam on places like Hoi An leaves you with a warped picture of what the country is about. These places are worth visiting to be sure; they're tourist locales for a reason. The thing to do is go in, take your pictures, and leave. And then rent a bike, go out and explore the country.


  1. Nice post. I was in Hoi An in early July for work and had a similar reaction. Though truth be told I've never known it to be anything but what it is now. The first time I visited was two years ago and it was already fluent in Travel English, banana pancakes and quickly tailored suits.

    I was there for seven days and by the end of it I didn't even want to leave my guesthouse. I couldn't take another lunch or dinner request or cyclo offer or any of the other myriad things touted every five feet. I love Vietnam. It's been home for three years and will continue to be home for the foreseeable future. But Vietnam this is not. Give me Hanoi any day of the week.

  2. As usual when reading your posts, I am kept interested by your commentary and attractive photos. Your positive and negative comments combined make for a fascinating read. I have not seen Hội An yet, but after reading this new text from "Ha Noi Scratchpad" I am ready to move Hội An to the top of my "travel wish list".

  3. Nailed my impression of the place exactly Hal. I've got to say though, Hoi An was rescued for me by the platonic ideal of banh xeo.

    One day I just walked an walked along the river, finally stumbling across this tiny tarp-like shelter occupied by a handful of what I assume were local residents. Greaseless, shatteringly crisp and yet satisfyingly chewy golden half moon paradoxes packed full of prawns, wrapped in rice paper with herbs, and dunked in a viciously delicious peanut sauce. And after I'd stuffed myself amidst the neighbours' laughs at my massacring of their language, I asked where the bathroom was. The old guy in charge of the cooking fire (never touched any of the food of course) led me back through the muddy tracks to his home.

    My memories of the tourist kitsch are greying and frayed. But I'll never, ever forget those banh xeo.

  4. Aaron, you and I seem to see Vietnam in a similar perspective. I love your blog man. Maybe we should meet up sometime and go explore - whatcha think?

    Anh Doug, I'm surprised you haven't been there! It's certainly worth a visit, for all the reasons I expressed. I think you're likely to have similar reactions as Aaron and me.

    Matt, that's beautiful, man. It goes to show there are authentic experiences to be found even in the midst of the tourist ghetto. You just have to seek them out.

    Thanks, all of you, for your comments.

  5. Hal,

    Sorry for the late reply. It'd be great to meet up sometime. I'm a big fan of your blog as well. It seems we both share a fondness for local food, so perhaps a lunch is in order?


  6. This is so true and very well said: "These places are worth visiting to be sure; they're tourist locales for a reason. The thing to do is go in, take your pictures, and leave. And then rent a bike, go out and explore the country."
    I did enjoy Hoi An's Full Moon Festival -Festival of Light... it was really unique and beautiful and in spite of the many vendors/pushy salespeople... to see so many people out enjoying the music, candle lights and moonlight was quite beautiful.
    I really enjoyed your post and photos.
    I'm trying to figure out your story... So you went to Vietnam to teach English for a year and a half and pay off bills?
    Very interesting... did you have a lot of bills and did they pay pretty well or did you just have so few expenses in VN that it was easy?
    Are you still there now or back in the US?
    Thanks! -Shelly

  7. As a woman traveling alone from Paris, I find Hoi An an ideal winter destination. I love the riverside, the food, and even the good natured aggressiveness of the shop keepers. They accept "no" without any rancor. And I find it a wonderful place to have all my Paris clothes (including shoes) copied for bewilderingly low prices. As an ex-American, I'm baffled by their friendliness to Americans. they say they like America because we're industrious. I'm sure that there are more authentic destinations (all within easy reach) of Hoi An, but for a delightful winter trip, I can imagine no place better for it's mix of historical and contemporary diversion. If I didn't have two cats sitting at home in my Paris apartment, I would seriously consider spending several months there.

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