We arrived in Hoi An mid-flood and feeling chilly for the first time in 6 months. Before setting off for our Southeast Asian travels we’d packed some warmer clothes but, after feeling rather stupid busting a sweat while lugging them round in humid 30 degree weather, had sent them back with my sister when she came to visit. So, with suitcases bursting with skimpy, summery clothes (and no ponchos), we were totally unprepared for what felt like shock temperatures of around 20 degrees.
It turned out that we’d picked the worst time of year to visit central Vietnam. We hadn’t even considered looking at any weather forecasts, having left the blue skies of Cambodia, where the few brief storms had come as a welcome relief from the stifling heat. We’d just assumed neighbouring Vietnam would also be well into the dry season. But we learned from experience how much the weather in this long, thin country differs from south to north. We cursed ourselves initially for having been so unaware, and hastily decided not to stay the previously intended month in a place that rained near constantly, when we’d very purposefully left the damp and perpetually wintery UK for sunnier, drier climes. But perhaps this ignorance was a good thing, as we might otherwise have skipped past this enchanting town that doesn’t need clear skies to reveal its magic.
We’d been sold on the destination of Hoi An because of the particular smile we’d witnessed on prior visitors’ faces when they spoke about their time there, and the balance between it’s charming and unique Ancient Town (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) and it’s stunning beaches. But not long after arriving we took a trip to An Bang Beach, and sat shivering at a forlorn and almost deserted bar that had a hint of funk about it, but felt like how a nightclub might look through the eyes of the cleaners when seeing it empty in the bright light of day. Despite being perched on a little cliff, far back from the sea, we weren’t quite far enough out of the spray from the ferocious waves assaulting the beach. Through the salty wind, we could just make out the appeal, and picture how different the experience would be with bright skies, sparkling seas, and crowds of merry holidaymakers sipping on ice cold beers and cocktails. But one look at all the grey was sufficient, so we didn’t have to worry about splitting our time between the two areas.
Initially we were disappointed with Hoi An. On arrival we’d been advised against going into the Ancient Town because of the flood, so hadn’t glimpsed it’s charm. And the dreary sky and constant damp was disheartening when we’d anticipated spending lots of time outside, and finding a new home to unpack our bags in for a month or so. We were used to spending toddler nap time in or near a pool, rather than cowering under a little balcony while damp slowly seeped though our clothes and mood. But the more we explored the more our perceptions changed. Along with our trip to the beach we also visited the Tra Que pottery village and Thanh Ha farming village, where we witnessed people making a living from vocations that generations before them had done. And we made peace with the fact that this wasn’t going to be a summery trip filled with days at the beach, and managed to look past the grey to see the beauty and uniqueness of this endearing town, with little communities steeped in history and continuing the legacies left by those who came before, even if (in the case of many potters) that now involves predominantly making money from the tourist trade rather than the actual trade. And once we’d also made our way to a market stall to buy our tot and myself some elephant pants / harem trousers to take the edge off the chill, I was ready to enjoy it.
Foreigners can’t hire a car in Vietnam, and there are no tuk tuks. So our transport options were limited to taxis and bicycles, which most homestays and hotels make available or hire. Our homestay organised us a child seat to go on the back of one of the bicycles and our little tot could barely make it through breakfast containing her excitement. She squealed deliriously as we cycled into town, while our knuckles became more and more white, as we tensely clenched the handlebars. The roads are pretty empty in comparison to those in Ho Chi Minh City, but everyone drives as though they’re completely empty – taxis have an aversion to the break pedal, and often the indicator too, and scooters still drive anywhere and in any direction. So, while the notion of pedalling our way to a local market, popping some fresh veg into our bicycle baskets, and then stopping off for a coffee in a cute little cafe was romantic, not being able to encase our little one’s precious and growing brain in a helmet (as we had none that fit) while steering her onto roads ruled by drivers that didn’t especially care about cyclists, was just too stressful and we couldn’t bring ourselves to take the risk again. So taxis became our chosen mode of transport (and at least limited how wet we got).
That didn’t stop us from visiting the Ancient Town every time there was a clearing in the sky, and even when there wasn’t. It’s breathtakingly beautiful! And it’s rather strange in its beauty because it’s so fairytale-like, it almost doesn’t feel real. Wandering down the little streets lined with picturesque yellow buildings that have hundreds of colourful lanterns strung up between them is more akin to something you’d expect to find in Venice than in Asia. But then it’s still got a very Vietnamese feel, albeit a completely different feel from largely modern and tirelessly bustling Saigon – a shared sense of industriousness, tenacity and vibrancy, as well as straw hat adorned ladies carting round baskets of fruit hanging from a large pole balancing on their shoulders.
We first entered the Ancient Town with high expectations and they were met, in spite of it’s touristy nature, the on-off rain, and the constant demand to “buy something” from shop workers and street vendors. Waking under all the colourful lanterns at night is absolutely magical, but it’s just as beautiful during the day (especially against a blue sky, which we were lucky enough to get once), when the lanterns are almost as bright and colourful. We developed a habit of stopping off for a fresh beer (locally brewed ‘no name brand’ draft beer served incredibly cheaply) at a little lantern adorned cafe. Sitting there overlooking the river and another street of chocolate-box yellow buildings dotted with colourful lanterns was a uniquely special experience that made me happy to be a traveller.
We’d initially just booked a few nights in a homestay, with the intention of finding some longer term accommodation once we’d got the lay of the land. But after deciding to abandon this plan and expedite our travels up north so we could go back down south again in time to guarantee ourselves a hot Christmas, we extended our stay in the homestay for long enough to soak up Hoi An (not just literally) and make onward travel plans. Homestays are a common option for accommodation in Vietnam – they’re effectively B&Bs, with the difference being that, in Southeast Asia, extended families all live together and don’t separate home and work like we tend to in the west. So you stay in a private room in a family house, and spend time with them living their day to day lives. Since access to a kitchen is a necessity for us to attempt cooking up wholesome meals – with whatever ingredients are available from place to place – for our tot (who likes what she likes and is dubious of anything else), the kitchen access made this a good option for us.
Initially it was a bit awkward living in a stranger’s home, helping ourselves to cooking equipment and going about the cooking routines we’d done in private for so long, while people stopped what they were doing and watched, intrigued, especially with a distinct language barrier. But what started off like a slightly awkward first dance became more relaxed after the first couple of days, and suddenly we weren’t thinking and had become used to each other’s routines and had managed to slot our lives into theirs. My first preparation step was always to grab the kettle off the counter and plug it in on the floor, as I’d been shown to do, because the large rice cooker it sat next to was constantly plugged in, full, and on the ‘warm’ setting (and multi-socket adaptors hadn’t found a way into their kitchen).
In the beginning I’d have a toddler shadow while cooking, but it wasn’t long before she ventured into the lounge and silently hung out with whoever was there. Sometimes the unassuming head of the family, Thien, would come into the kitchen and chat with us while gently taking potatoes off us to peel or dishes to wash, or she’d pick up our tot and entertain her in the lounge. One evening we sat with them on their cushionless wooden sofas and watched football, which was of no interest to our little tot, so she muscled her way into their 9-year-old son’s chair and looked over his shoulder as he played a game on his phone, which he simply tolerated.
I was grateful for the prolonged and heartfelt interactions she got while we lived in their home, in contrast to having to endure strangers’ persistent face touching, despite her obvious attempts to squirm away. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia people had been obsessed with her white-pink skin, but here the obsession was with her fair and curly hair, which hung in gorgeous tight ringlets because of the damp weather, and she shunned the attention they attracted.
But during our 9 days at Horizon Homestay she relaxed and seemed to feel as privileged as we did to have been welcomed into their home and family, where we were always met with a smile and nothing was too much trouble. She’d eagerly rush out of our room each morning to eat breakfast in the communal areas. While fixing her cereal, we’d notice Tom tootling off on his scooter to pick us up some chay (vegetarian) noodle soups from nearby restaurants, since they didn’t have vegan food on their breakfast repertoire. The hospitality and generosity we experienced from their family was humbling. When Thien heard we were heading up to Halong Bay she came home with some warm clothes she’d bought for our tot at the market. Our little one proudly put them on immediately and joined in on the Vietnamese tradition of wearing pyjamas during the day.
If we hadn’t experienced this kindness, we might have drawn other conclusions about the Vietnamese culture, or at least attitude to foreigners. Once we’d been sauntering down a touristy street, making the most of a dry spell, and our tot had pointed to a hat at a market stall, which the store owner immediately put on her head. It wasn’t a particularly nice hat, and wouldn’t have made a great companion for our onward travels because of its fragility, so we politely smiled, removed it, and placed it back down. At this point the lady’s husband came out and angrily shouted at us, throwing hostile gestures around with his arms, which we chose to walk away from and instead focused our attention on the enchanting lanterns in the next street.
Aside from these lanterns, Hoi An is famed for it’s tailors. Wherever you look there are mannequins showcasing all sorts of different dresses and suits and fronting shops packed to the rafters with rolls of fabric. While we’ve become well versed in the practice of blowing our budget continually on our travels, we tend to reserve this for restaurants and transport, and still try and keep general spending in check, so I didn’t get any of the dresses I’d initially hoped to have made, after receiving some quotes. But I couldn’t help getting a few for our little tot. It was quite a thrilling experience selecting the fabric, discussing the style, and then returning a few hours later to pick up the gorgeous little dresses. She was so exuberant when she tried on her first dress that she grabbed her dad’s phone, put on her favourite song, and literally did a dance for joy in it! It made me realise how it’s the disparate and unpredictable moments that make travel so spellbinding, even if you’re well on the beaten track.
Another alluring feature of course is the chance to explore different foods. Like elsewhere in Vietnam, Hoi An boasts lots of chay (vegetarian) restaurants, with most or all vegan menu items. And on the 1st and 15th days of the lunar calendar they made special dishes like mock chicken rice and burst at the seams with non-vegetarian Buddhists who eat “com chay” (vegetarian food) on these days. We had one awful meal full of horrendous rubbery mock meat and salad poisoned with fish mint (a large leafed herb with a pungent taste that made me think of rotten meat each time I tasted or smelled it, and something I don’t think I could ever eat without gagging, so learned to avoid). But other than this we ate moreish noodle soups (Pho), tofu with chilli and lemongrass or tomato sauce, aubergine clay pots, and stir-fried veggie noodles at loads of different restaurants. A standout lunch we repeated regularly was the tofu banh mi from Banh Mi Phuong, a restaurant made famous by Anthony Bourdain who featured it on a travel series and declared it’s sandwich the best in the world. Because of this, there were always queues out of the door, while a line of staff on the other side of the counter furiously stuffed crusty baguettes (brought over still steaming in a large laundry basket from the neighbouring bakery), but no standards have slipped. They don’t scrimp on fillings, slather on a perfectly savoury and spicy chilli sauce, and load up chunks of finger-lickingly squidgy tofu cooked in a sticky sauce, with crisp lettuce and juicy tomato. You cannot just have one! We also had to go back to Am Vegetarian for their banh xeo – a savoury rice flour pancake that is traditionally stuffed with pork, shrimp, mung bean, spring onion and bean sprouts, but which they veganised and topped with shredded seaweed, and we were gutted to have only discovered just before having finalised our onwards plans.
After having arrived a bit glum, once it was time to head north, we hugged our homestay family goodbye tightly and, despite looking through rain distorted taxi windows, left wistfully. The damp may have dashed our initial impressions, but Hoi An still captured our hearts. Maybe one day we’ll be lucky enough to return.