It’s a funny game we play being tourists. We act our part while simultaneously loathing other tourists, finding places, “too touristy.” The word itself starts to ring sour, “tourist.” We begin calling ourselves, “travelers” or “journeymen,” but somehow we seem to do the same things those tourists are doing. We look back on our photos and there are those damn tourists ruining our perfect shots. They’re off, on, and all around the “beaten track” no matter how hard we try to evade them. In the end, we could spend our time moaning in existential agony or accept these two facts:
1.) Tourists follow trails.
2.) The trails are there for a reason.
My trail led me to Hoi An in central Vietnam… as did everyone else’s.
Hoi An may have had more westerners lurking around its brooding backstreets than Vietnamese. My explorer instincts put up an instant wall screaming, “Resist! Hate this place. Go see the real Vietnam.” But, I held up my hands and gave up. I gave in. This achingly quaint mustard-yellow town with its cheap beer, world-class riverside restaurants, European ambiance, and abundant affordable luxuries was all too alluring. I tucked away my inner explorer, dawned my urban, Western sophisticado, and let Hoi An cater to all my tourist needs.
Hoi An is situated along the central coast of Vietnam but, unlike its neighbors, was spared the destruction of the American War. The city is conveniently located just 5kms from a white-sand beach and an hour respectively from the great Cham ruins of My Son and central Vietnam’s largest city, Danang.
Possessing the largest harbor in Southeast Asia in the 1st Century, Hoi An grew in importance thereafter. The Cham controlled its strategic port for spice trade between the 7th and 10th Centuries, bringing Hoi An incredible wealth and by the 16th and 17th Centuries, Hoi An was the international trading center of Southern Vietnam. Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, and Indian traders all set up their emporiums, establishing their own quarters for permanent habitation.
Hoi An declined sharply at the end of the 18th Century with the collapse of Nguyen rule but remained a vital port under the French. Its uniform yellow buildings with their elaborately detailed wooden windows are considered some of the finest examples of French Colonial Architecture.
Crumbling into the history books, restoration began in the 1990’s to tactfully preserve the old city with its historic houses, assembly halls, pagodas and shrines and transform the streets into a living museum of architecture and urban lifestyle. With its UNESCO protection, this small riverside town reemerged as a popular stopover on the north to south route through Vietnam.
Hoi An is a town of makers: dressmakers, shoemakers, lanternmakers… Come with an idea and it will be made to order like a Subway sandwich in twenty-four hours. Girls the world over flock here to create special dresses while guys fawn over the endless possibilities for hand-designed sneakers or three-piece suits. Artisans labor over ceramics, lacquer paintings, and other crafts of the Orient. A town of business for over twenty centuries, Hoi An is the perfect place to practice your bargaining. What you can get, and for how little, is impressive.
Scattered amidst the shops in the criss-crossing street of Hoi An, a unique concentration of cultural and architectural monuments (living house, assembly hall, communal house, pagoda, shrine, temple, well, market, wharf) remain preserved intact as a symbolic example of Middle Age Oriental cities. Part museum, part shopping mall, Hoi An caters to all tastes.
The cheapest beer in all of Vietnam may be the initial draw, but Hoi An’s unique gastronomical anomalies keep you eating all day long. Widely regarded as the culinary capital of the country, Hoi An’s signature dishes are, sadly, seldom seen outside of the region.
Hoi An’s three staples are white rose, fried wontons, and cao lau. A plate of transparent dumplings, each white rose is boiled with a pink prawn curled in the center. The fried flour wontons encase a ball of pork and vegetables and are lightly fried to a delicate crisp while the beloved cao lau is a bowl packed with thick rice noodles in a light broth and topped with pork, mint, basil, lettuce, sprouts, and heaps of croutons.
Other specialties include prawn lollipops (prawns wrapped around sugar cane) and deep-fried rice pancakes.
While there are several ambient riverfront restaurants, the food at Dac San Hoi An, tucked away on a sleepy side-street, is unrivaled in taste. Its young chef whips up the tastiest food you’ll have in all of Asia. Each meal becomes a five-course feast and at under $3.00 USD, you can revel in the affordable luxury.
Hoi An is oft raved about as tourist’s favorite destination in Vietnam and it’s not hard to see why. The captivating city offers a chance for occidental luxuries in an Oriental setting with just enough heritage to feel authentic. Its small town manageability combined with its caboodle box flair and organization, are unrivaled in busy Vietnam. Furthermore, Hoi An sits at a strategic spot on a long-tridden trail down vertical Vietnam.
Tourists follow trails…
But, the trails are there for a reason.
They’re a best of – a mapped out top ten. You can try to break free, but in this global world, each highway has a dozen exits which eventually lead back to the main road.
I wanted to be above the allure of Hoi An, but I couldn’t resist. I let touts take me on the back of their motorbikes to bars for free “bucket drinks.” I helped a friend design a wedding dress. I even had my new pair of sneakers designed before I assessed the size of my growing backpack and ditched the idea. However, it didn’t stop me from buying several lanterns which, incidentally, take up much more space. I drank Vietnamese wine though it tasted of grape juice and left Hoi An with a slight paunch and a penchant for multi-course meals. My inner explorer died a slow and painful death and I became a tourist on a trail… but maybe… sometimes… that’s not such a bad thing.