Hoi An was hands down our most favourite place in Vietnam.
It is one of those towns that you just don’t want to leave and want to stay to soak up the atmosphere, savour the local delicacies, sip Vietnamese coffee, walk around in the beautiful streets every day. Hoi An also looked to me a lot like a ‘toy town’. I call places ‘toy towns’ when they appear to exist solely for tourism, as if there were no locals actually living there, only coming in every morning to open up souvenir shops and restaurants for the flock of tourists and then at the end of the day the whole city shuts up and goes quiet as the locals go back to live their real lives in real cities. Of course this is untrue and I am sure plenty of people do live in Hoi An. It just doesn’t feel that way to me. Another city I could describe this is Florence in Italy (one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world), but just on a much bigger scale. Places like this, ‘toy towns’, make me think: what would happen if the tourists stopped coming one day…? Of course it didn’t used to be like this: Hoi An used to be a very important port town, but now it exists almost exclusively for tourism.
When you first see Hoi An, its foreign influences are evident: it looks a bit like a European town, but with a real and very well preserved local flavour. As you walk further and further into the old town it has more of a Japanese and Chinese feel to it. The town is situated over the Thu Bon River, with one side being a lot more quiet and the other the more touristy side where the old town is. We stayed on the quiet side, which was perfect, we could then just walk over the river for the day to explore the old town. When walking over the main bridge there is a ticket office where you can pay a small fee and buy a day visitor ticket. This is basically a fee towards the upkeep of the old town, which seemed very fair to me. It also gives you free entry to 5 museums or historical places or temples within 24 hours. It;s a great way to see a town. The whole ancient town is now a UNESCO World Heritage listed town. Apart from being incredibly beautiful, nowadays it is most famous for two things: its tailor shops and its lanterns.
You cannot visit Hoi An without noticing the lanterns hung up everywhere. The Vietnamese believe that hanging a few lanterns in front of their house will bring happiness to their family. Even during daytime, the beautiful colourful lanters of all shapes and sizes hang on every building, street, by the river, over coffee houses and temples… they are everywhere and they are delightful! But it is during nighttime when they truly come to life as they light up the whole town. It’s a pretty magical sight and if you are lucky enough to be in Hoi An during a full moon celebration, all other lights of the town are switched off and only lanterns and candles light up the streets.
And while I knew all about the lanters before arriving, I must admit I did not know the towns famous tailor traditions. The town is full of tailors and tailor shops where you can get measured up and good quality tailor fitted clothes made. Even if you are not aware of this, once you are near enough the town you will soon know of it. We first heard about the tailors when in Hue a local asked us where we are going next and as we answered ‘Hoi An’, he proceeded to tell us we must go to his friend who is a tailor and get clothes made. We didn’t really understand this at the time.
Then at Hue train station as we were about to board the train towards Hoi An, someone else also approached us and asked us if we wanted some cheap tailor made clothes, because he knew someone in Hoi An… By now we started to cotton on. Then as we made our way from Danang station to Hoi An in a taxi, at one of the junctions a young woman jumped into the taxi (apparently a friend of the driver’s and was just helping the driver with the directions to the town, yeah right… ;-)) but she quickly started questioning us about what we wanted to shop for and if we wanted some clothes, especially if Adam wanted some new suits…. As soon as Adam told her he was a builder and didn’t need suits she immediately looked disinterested and gave us a look of ‘but if you are a builder and not businessman, how can you afford to travel, you are not rich…’ 😀
Once we arrived at our hotel in Hoi An the receptionist guy quickly told us to go to his friend’s shop who will make us some nice suits and clothes and then as soon as we stepped out of the hotel to go into town another young woman rocked up by our side and tried to persuade us not to go into the tailor shops but instead go to her aunties stall at the market who will make us a nice suit and some clothes for cheap…… Phew…. We hadn’t even stepped foot in Hoi An ancient town and already we had to say no to suits and clothes at least a half a dozen times, some times it was easy to ward off unwanted sales-talk and other times they were really persistent and had to be very firm with them. Of course once you are actually walking around Hoi An and see the tailor shops it is very quaint and very inviting. No sales talk needed, you will want to go in and get some lovely affordable clothes made. So yet again, this pushy sales technique from the locals that I had already described just doesn’t work. Well maybe it does work with some tourist, otherwise surely they wouldn’t bother right?! If you do go to Hoi An, please be very careful: almost everybody earns commission from referring tourists to tailor shops and it is a typical tourist trap as the quality or the price might not live up to the sales-talk…Read this article to find out more about ‘The Darker Side of the Tailors of Hoi An’.
Another lovely aspect of Hoi An is that it is only 3 km from the coast and the nearest beach. We rented bicycles and rode to An Bang beach and had a fab day frolicking in the sea. The sand was fine and white, the sea was choppy but a lot of fun trying to keep upright and not loose my bikini in the waves and we had lunch in the nearby restaurant that was sold to us with the free use of a sunbed. Again saleswomen on the beach everywhere trying to sell sunbeds to tourists at every turn. All of them guarding their turf, their own sunbeds, their own tourists. We cycled back to town in the afternoon and got sufficiently sun-burnt on the 20 minute ride in the afternoon sun.
The road leading from Hue to Hoi An is the famous Hai Van Pass made most famous by Top Gear. To travel to Hoi An along this pass you can either hire a private car (this is the most expensive option, but the car can stop anywhere you want) or get the train (The Reunification Express between Hanoi and Saigon) to nearby Danang station (less expensive and still has lovely views). We got the train and it took 2 and a half hours and cost 260000 VND per person (approx £8) for a soft seat in an air-conditioned carriage, very comfortable and affordable. If you are more adventurous you can hire a motorbike and follow in the tyre-tracks of Top Gear. There are also many motorbike tour companies operating in Hue on the back of Top Gear that will offer to take you over the Hai Van Pass, just make sure you research the companies well before signing up for anything.