When we got off the bus in Hoi An we didn’t really know what we should expect. All we knew is what we had briefly read in our travel book and what we had watched on Anthony Bourdain’s TV show but neither of those described what we actually saw and felt when we walked into this ancient town. The old town of Hoi An is somewhat of a perfect place. For the past few centuries Hoi An was one of the major ports and hubs for trade and commerce in South East Asia. The preservation of the old town and lack of modern architecture is due to the river drying up and the increased difficulty to conduct productive trade. The desire to keep Hoi An as a major port vanished and so the population did as well. The story seems similar to that of Detroit but after the population and industry vanished the buildings were preserved from lack of use and little human contact. This resulted in Hoi An remaining almost untouched by the war and modernization that Vietnam went through for the next 200 years. In 1999, the old town was declared a World Heritage Site therefor ensuring it preservation further.
After checking into one of the nicest hotels we’ve stayed at yet we walked around the old town to grab some dinner. Within minutes we both decided that we needed to stay longer than just two days here. Hoi An has somewhat of a bigger city feel compared to some of the places that we had stopped but gone were the honking horns of motorbikes and cars driving through narrow streets. This city was one of the quietest we’ve heard in Vietnam as they don’t allow motorbikes or cars down many of the main streets. The small streets along the river are lined with restaurants offering cooking classes,internet cafes, bars selling “fresh beer”for 25 cents, and tailor shops that offer made-to-measure clothes for half to a quarter of the price you would find in the US. At night the town comes alive along the river with vendors selling floating lanterns with candles you can place in the river, Venice style boat rides, and bars offering drink specials until the sunrise. We wanted to take advantage of the 25 cent glasses of fresh beer so we met up with our new travel friends Ben and Talvie. We had previously met in Hué earlier that week. Ben (Germany) and Talvie (Estonia) who both now live in the UK together have been traveling Asia for a few months now. They started in Nepal and made their way through China where they decided to embark on a cycling adventure from China through all of Southeast Asia. After their long days ride and our long bus rides we sat down along the river for dinner and drinks. The cheapest drinks restaurants offer are the small glasses of “fresh beer” which we soon learned was not fresh and is only served during happy hour to compel tourist to come in. Ben who is a master at politely turning down vendors that come up to the table was also wise enough to make a tally for all the beers we drank so we weren’t being ripped off by anyone. This obviously turned into a tally of how many fresh beers we could all put down before the cut off at 9pm when all the restaurants closed and clubs were the only option. 9 ‘o’clock sharp we were booted from our last restaurant and our tally mark had reached 50 total beers. We couldn’t bring ourselves to go inside one of the clubs that blasted American pop music so loud you can’t ever seem to escape it so we hopefully wandered around the quiet shut down streets looking for any small restaurant to sit down. Once we realized we were out of luck we found an elderly woman street vendor and bargained with her for all of the beer she had displayed on her small plastic table. We brought them to the dock where all the dragon boats were tied up and decided that we needed to figure out a way to get aboard. After Talvie and I basically tightrope walked up on to one of the boats (as the boys sat back and watched thinking they would get a free show of their tipsy girlfriends falling into the river) the boys followed and we finished off our drinks relaxing on a dark and creaky dragon boat.
Hoi An is also known for its blue water and white sand beaches so on one of our days there we planned to meet Ben and Talvie at one of the more popular spots called An Bang beach. This beach was pretty majestic and the four of us rode waves and drank fresh coconuts all afternoon. On our way back to the hotel Dylan and I took a detour off the main road only to stumble upon some hidden rice patties. Driving through the town you would never even know that they were there and we were so thankful we had found them. We were able to sit up close and watch the workers harvest, dry, and tend to the rice. No machinery is used besides maybe a scooter that sits on the edge of the field waiting to be packed full and driven home. Everything is done by hand as it has been for thousands of years. The fields grow, the harvest comes, the rice is picked and laid out day after day to dry, the remaining stocks of rice are burned to enrich the soil, the cows and buffalo are moved from field to field for fertilizer and to turn the muddy soil, the new rice is planted and the process all starts again. We rode around the rice fields for an hour or so, watching, learning, and in the end admiring the amount of labor and discipline the life of a farmer takes.
Our hotel was located off the main strip along the river in a quieter and less touristy area. It was run by a family that we came to love and are already looking forward to seeing again. On one of our nights there we had just finished walking through the outdoor market and we both realized how much we missed cooking meals together. When we were at home in San Francisco not a day went passed the first two months of our relations that we didn’t cook dinner together. The owners of the hotel gave us permission to use their kitchen to cook two crab that we bought at the market. During the time that we were preparing our meal the family of the hotel was doing the same so we were able to meet the owners 9 year old daughter Min, that both Dylan and I became very fond of. This quirky and full of energy little girl watched us intensely as we prepared each part of our dinner. Dylan (who I think of as a master chef) was basically schooled by Min about how to cook and take apart our crab. At one point she looked at him laughing and said, “Have you ever even done this before?”. Nine year old Min then stepped in and showed us the way she has seen her mother prepare a crab, which actually made the whole process much easier than how we had previously been doing it. She was even able to show us parts of the crab we could eat that we had been throwing away all this time. This time we spent with Min that night was a highlight of Hoi An Vietnam for both of us.