Hoi An feels like a small riverside town in the French countryside. It’s misty, overcast and significantly cooler than the southern beach towns like Quy Nhon and Na Trang. While the historic French architecture is beautiful and romantic, all the buildings are filled with tourist-centric vendors selling custom-tailored clothing, souvenirs and day tours. There isn’t much local Vietnamese culture apart from villagers making a buck with the tourist boom. Most tourists were French and few Americans appeared on the scene.
We stayed at Thanh Van II Hotel ($24/night) a bit outside of old town. They provided free bicycles, tasty breakfast and spotty Internet. Facebook hacks definitely came in handy as the Vietnamese government has blocked its citizens from communicating with former citizens who fled the country during the American war.
We rode bikes to the beach 10 km from town. Although cloudy, the beach was relaxing with rough waves crashing up on the shore. We weren’t relaxing for more than ten minutes before a “beach guard” started dragging our bikes to a truck on the street. Brett popped up and ran over to deal with the situation. Apparently you can’t park your bike near the beach and when we try to park where the guard points across the street there are “no parking signs” everywhere. This forced us to park at one of the many beachfront restaurants where women are yelling, “park your bike here, park your bike here!”. We gathered this to be a clever scam to force tourists to spend money at the local restaurants on the beach. While enjoying our lunch and reading, women relentlessly kept interrupting us to buy junk souvenirs. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our drinks followed by naps on the lounge chairs at the restaurant on the beach.
Our favorite restaurant in Hoi An was Cafe 43. We ate here several times and couldn’t get enough of their Won Ton soup, “White Rose” dumplings, veggie spring rolls and lemongrass chili tofu. Cafe 43 serves affordable traditional Vietnamese cuisine and $.40 beers. Other favorite restaurants included Cargo Club (amazing French inspired desserts) and Morning Glory.
While in Hoi An we took a day trip to My Son (Me Sun), the holy land of the Cham people between the 4th and 15th centuries. The temples were constructed in many phases starting in the 10th century by the Hindu people. The site was lost in the jungle for hundreds of years until a French archeologist made the discovery in the early 20th century. The site was pretty much destroyed in the Vietnam-American war with only a few sections still intact. My Son was set in a beautiful jungle-hill landscape and many buildings are currently being restored.
On the boat ride back, we stopped at an island village…. home to wood craftsmen. They were busy at work building wooden boats and souvenirs. This is where we saw an ancient statue with a Swastika symbol around its neck. The swastika was apparently borrowed by Hitler (turned clockwise) from early Indian Hinduism and Asian Buddhism.
Upon arriving in Hoi An, we strolled through the old town shopping district. We found an interesting art gallery showcasing a Vietnamese artist and his modern interpretation of Vietnamese culture. We had a difficult time deciding on the right painting and decided to buy two from the local artist. One symbolizes the “Freedom Fisherman” and the other a famous “Autumn Children’s Festival”. Although mass produced, the artwork is hand painted and the only interesting works we could find to remember Hoi An. We were warned that copycat galleries of his artwork exist throughout the city. We later found similar work at much lower prices, also signifying that they were fakes. This continued to sour our perspective of Vietnamese people and their plight to connive tourists at every opportunity.
Our time in Hoi An was enjoyable, but we left still searching for a warmer and friendlier Vietnam. Hue, another French colonial town, promised to incorporate more local culture, food and Vietnam war relics.
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Hoi An, Vietnam