Heeded by warnings that it would be difficult to travel in and around Tet, we opted to stay put in Hoi An for 6 nights and spend our new year’s eve there. We’d heard many great things from friends about the charm of this little Unesco Heritage town, so we were definitely looking forward to exploring and taking in the sites and flavours. Hoi An is an old port town that offers a completely different architectural landscape than what we’d seen so far in Vietnam owed to a varied history and influences from Chinese, Japanese and French settlements. It also seems to be one of the only places not significantly impacted by the American war, apparently due to a mutual cooperation of both sides. Hoi An definitely has an “old world” charm to it, and gives off a very laid back and tranquil vibe. It also doesn’t hurt that about 5km east of the town, there is a massive stretch of beautiful golden sand beach to enjoy when you need a change of scenery.
Because of Tet, the whole town was bustling with new year celebration preparations. The streets were decorated with red and yellow lanterns and sprawling “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” (Happy New Year) banners everywhere, and the major streets were lined with vendors selling massive potted orange trees, yellow mum flower plants and cherry blossom trees (all being loaded on to the backs of motorbikes). For children, there were an abundance of animal-shaped helium balloons being sold and seemingly every child had one in tow. The food markets seemed abuzz with special new year’s specialities as well, including beautiful looking fruits and all sorts of rice and coconut-based sweets. Compared to our previous 6 days of travel, it was clear that we were now back on the tourist path with most store vendors able to speak in English and a sea of tourists filling up the streets. We’d hoped this would work to our advantage as we’d read that many Hoi An restaurants would remain open during Tet in order to continue to service the tourist crowds.
Just in case though, we opted to stay in a little bungalow at the Orchid Garden Homestay were we had our own little kitchen that we could use to cook meals in if we weren’t able to find a meal over new year’s. Turns out we didn’t need to worry since over check-in we were invited to a new year’s day celebration meal with all the other guests. Sweet! We were also pleasantly surprised by how beautiful the bungalow and surrounding orchid garden were. In addition to the kitchen, we had our own little sitting/tv room, a huge bedroom with another tv and two bathrooms – one indoor and another incredible one outdoors. There was also a wonderful swimming pool shared by all the guests, who we enjoyed some nice conversations with as many of them were staying for a similar length of time as us. The homestay had free bicycles which we used on occasion (as usual, none of them were remotely close to fitting Jesse), but we decided to also rent a motorbike while we were there so we could explore the town and surroundings a little further. It was definitely an ideal place for us to call home for our 6 nights in Hoi An.
On new year’s eve, we headed in to town to check out the local festivities. There was a beautiful lantern festival on display all along the riverfront, as well as a mini-carnival where all the local teenager seemed to be hanging out. I got a kick out of seeing that instead of your typical stuffed animal carnival game prize, here in Vietnam you play for cans of pop or beer! As midnight approached, the riverfront became more and more packed with both the local and tourist crowds waiting in anticipation for the fireworks show. We had camped ourselves out at a slightly overpriced touristy riverside street vendor who had prime seating for the show and were enjoying a nice conversation with an English couple (who we learned take 3 months off to travel every 3 years!) when all of the sudden around 11:58PM the skies opened up and it started to pour! And just as everyone started to scramble to find shelter (of which there was none), the fireworks show erupted before us. Luckily for us, the vendors quickly opened up some massive umbrellas and we managed to squeeze our way under one right at the edge still with a decent view of the sky. Despite the unexpected downpour, the fireworks show was really spectacular and though we were soaking wet we had a really fantastic time. The locals all wished us happy new year and everyone was in great spirits. Of course as soon as the fireworks show was done, the rain also faded out so luckily we could walk back with relative ease. This also allowed us to observe the local shop owners and families setting up these beautiful tables of food, flowers and treats inside their stores as an offering for their ancestors. They also burn oodles of fake money in tin cans and sometimes right on the side of the street to ensure their ancestors are wealthy and comfortable in their afterlife. It was amazing to see this tradition being upheld at every single storefront we passed by, with everyone looking happy and hopeful for the upcoming year.
Hoi An is well known for offering great culinary tastes for tourists, and we definitely had some memorable food experiences. Unfortunately we might have been too spoiled by our previous 6 days with our Easy Riders food experts, so generally speaking I don’t think we were totally blown away by Hoi An’s food scene. As it typically is the case for us, we were striking out every time we tried out highly touted sit-down restaurant (overpriced, never particularly memorable) so we tried to stick with the street food. It also didn’t help that we suspect most street vendors had closed up shop while we were there due to Tet so perhaps we didn’t get the true Hoi An experience. Nonetheless, we did enjoy an insanely good Banh Mi (Vitenamese sub) filled with pate, shredded dried pork, random pork meat slices, pickled and fresh veggies and herbs, topped off with some sort of addictive special sauce, encased in an unbelievable crusty and soft baguette. This sandwich put the ones in Toronto to shame, and made us craving more every day. We also enjoyed an unexpectedly tasty vegetarian noodle soup meal on the side of the road, filled with chunks of stewed pumpkin, fried tofu and some sort of awesome deep-fried taro pancake. The signature dish in Hoi An is called Cau Lau and it’s made up of a very unique type of chewy rice noodle quickly boiled with bean sprouts and topped with slices of soy-marinated pork, lettuce, basil, mint, cilantro, a bit of broth and deep fried crouton-like pieces of dough. We had this dish on 3 different occasions during our time in Hoi An and can vouch that not all cau lau’s are made the same. I think I preferred the home-made version served during our Tet celebration dinner at the Homestay the best.
One night on our motorbike ride home from the beach we noticed an unusually large number of young Vietnamese teenagers filling up a little food stall vendor’s space, but we were unsure of what they served. When we walked up, the vendor welcomed us in a quickly made up a table for us. We figured that a place that packed had to be good, so we basically ordered one of everything and had an awesome meal. The main draw is a bowl of tiny, spicy snails sided by a delicious crisy rice cracker. It took us a little while to master the art of sucking the snails out of their shells, but after observing how everyone else was doing it we eventually picked up the “suck three times really fast and then if that fails use toothpick” technique (Jesse was much better at this than me). We also had some sort of spicy papaya salad that had a mystery meat product in it. But the highlight was definitely the Nem Nuong frilled sping rolls that we were served…have no idea what was in them (we guess maybe taro or sweet potato and possibly some meat??) along with a delicious sweet dipping sauce. So good we ordered another serving. Sadly we didn’t have our camera with us that night so we only have iphone pics of our super awesome meal.
Since most things around town were closed for Tet, we opted to spend most of our days lounging around in our awesome bungalow watching a wide variety of movies on TV which ranged from captivating to crappy (thank goodness of HBO and Starmovies channels!), swimming in the pool, or hanging out at the beach. We took a liking to An Bang beach which was fairly quiet and peaceful. It was surprisingly windy while we were there though, so the waves were quite large. We had a lot of fun jumping and diving into the big waves, but they could also be quite powerful and at one point I seemed to get pulled out a bit further than I wanted to and had to get Jesse to rescue me back when I couldn’t manage to swim further inland. Yikes! We also got in some much needed beach frisbee playing and Kobo reading which made for an excellent, relaxing time.
Our 6 days in Hoi An sort of breezed by, and it almost felt like we were on a mini-vacation within our vacation since we didn’t feel much pressure to see or do too much while we were there. Tet definitely slowed things down in the town, and so we just followed suit. Speaking of suits, the other thing Hoi An is famous for are its hundreds of tailors where most tourists will have made-to-measure clothing made for them with surprisingly quick turnaround times and good prices. In the end, we decided not to get anything made (just seemed a little daunting and some of the recommended places were closed anyway) but it seemed inappropriate to write about Hoi An and not mention the tailors! Anyway, we enjoyed our time there but definitely were looking forward to moving on by the end. Next up, we take on the insane Tet travel constraints (i.e. all trains fully booked) and head to Phong Nha by local bus to check out some of Vietnam’s most famous caves.