Vietnam, Hoi An
It was time to head south again but this time not too far, only 30km to the ancient port town of Hoi An, one of Vietnam’s most atmospheric and delightful places. Checked in at the brand new Sunshine Hotel on the outskirts of town whereupon the staff gave us a map and a lot of good information and tips on the area. They also had free bicycles so we grabbed a couple and pedaled into town.
Hoi An is a World Heritage site and over 800 historical buildings in the Old Town have been preserved by UNESCO decree to look as they did several centuries ago. Cars are also banned from the town so it has retained a serene, timeless ambiance that is unlike anywhere else I have been. An eclectic mix of Chinese temples, ancient tea houses, Japanese merchant houses, riverfront restaurants, quaint cafes, and of course tailors and silk shops (the town is famed for silk and clothing) can be found here. Unlike other areas, Hoi An was untouched by American bombers so the architecture really is hundreds of years old. It is a delightful experience cycling through the labyrinth of alleys and streets, with mustard yellow colonial buildings and locals going about their daily business at a lazy pace.
Of course there is a downside to this historical oasis, and that is tourists in droves, vendors, hawkers, happy hours, backpacker parties, and extortionate over-pricing. You literally cannot stay still for 20 seconds without being approached by someone trying to sell you something from fake Ray Bans to motorcycle tours to peanuts to plastic toys to boat trips to Buddha amulets to shockingly expensive fruit. The bargain of the day was a little café/restaurant selling Bia Hoi (fresh beer) at 4,000 Dong (less $0.20) per glass where you can sit and watch it all unfold in front of you.
Hoi An is also blessed with a decent beach which is a 4km cycle away, the route takes you through rice paddies and over river crossings. The enterprising locals will stop at nothing to make a buck out of the tourists, even going as far as strategically positioning their buffalo in a field to make a decent photo shot then asking for a ‘contribution’ to the family funds once the unwitting camera man has clicked the shutter. On arrival at the beach more money makers blow whistles at tourists telling them they can’t take bikes to the beach and have to park them there, for a fee of course. Naturally I ignored them and pedaled past the tourist section in search of small local alleys leading to empty stretches of beach, they were not hard to find.
Hoi An is a culinary hot pot with flavours from across the globe but we generally found that the food in tourist restaurants was over-priced and bland so stuck to street food as much as possible. Eating out in Vietnam is more expensive than in Thailand with the average dish costing 80-120k ($4-6) however the portions are much larger and the beer is so cheap that it balances out. Vietnamese food itself is very similar to Thai, just a little more Chinese influence and a little less chili.
We had 5 days in total in Hoi An but it was probably a little too much, there are only so many times you can cycle around the town and stop at the Bia Hoi place! It is a very photogenic town though!