I sat on my hotel balcony and looked out over the Thu Bon River. Small vessels putted their way up and down stream with locals hawking ‘cheap’ trips to the ocean or the town centre while crews threw nets and traps into the salty water. Palm fronds on the far bank enveloped the scenery while multiple red tiled rooves interjected themselves into the landscape, breaking up the vegetation. All the while the neighbours of my hotel hosed down the concrete paths in front of their shop for the third time that day. Hotel employees waited patiently for guests to emerge from the air conditioned comfort of their rooms to borrow bicycles for the short ride into the city while men stood in chest deep water in the river, collecting shell fish from the bottom, blindly using their feet to search for them. Others dried mountains of prawns on hot, concrete porches for meals as they chase cats and dogs away from what they saw as a free feed.
This is Hoi An, located half an hour from Danang, in Vietnam.
Guide books tell you that it is the most popular place to visit in Vietnam, for both tourist and Vietnamese locals alike. And it’s not hard to see why. The town itself is a bustling centre of tradition and tourism, with small stalls and hotels littering the streetscape. Business owners routinely walk these streets, identifying foreigners and attempting to convince them to purchase souvenirs. Taxi services buzz around, honking their horns to attract attention. Mopeds hurriedly weave in and out of traffic, intent on making it to their next destination.
“Where you from?”
“Oh, Australia! Melbourne or Sydney?”
“Melbourne. Very nice. You come buy suit in my shop. Very nice suit. You look good.”
Being offered your own personal tailor and a handmade suit is a fun experience, but being chosen as the one most in need of a new wardrobe is slightly disheartening. Hoi An is famed for its large amount of suit stores. I think every travel program I’ve ever watched that has made the trip to Southeast Asia has the presenter purchase a colourful suit manufactured here, Top Gear included. There are so many on offer that you can understand why they spruik on the street to drum up business. Prices can vary, like the quality, but it all depends on what you want to spend. There aren’t many locations where you can get measured up, spend the rest of the day being a tourist and then have alterations made to your new outfit that night while you have a beer.
When you turn one vendor down, another one takes their place. They come along, often peddling a bicycle, searching out potential clients. I’ve been offered all manner of services just on the short walk into town; knives, haircuts, massages, shoes, drinks, drugs, rugs, taxis and girls- sometimes all by the same individual. It becomes hard to use the same excuses to deter people, even though they would have encountered this rejection time and time again.
“I’ve been here before… I already have one… I’m just going for a walk… I can’t afford that… I’m too hungover today…” The last one is always a winner- usually accepted with a knowing nod, a wink and a wry smile that says, “Doesn’t matter, I’ll just ask you again tomorrow.”
It creates a town with an exotic atmosphere that consumes visitors. It has shops for everything from three piece suits to cooking utensils. Restaurants provide local delicacies mixed with a hint of western flavours. The day time market is engorged with fresh, local produce. It produces an aroma of fresh vegetables, fish and meats. People move around this place with a sense of urgency whilst also maintaining a calm relaxed feel that this river side town is famous for.
The old city in town is off limits to cars and mopeds but bicycles still find their way through. Locals whip through these parts of town on pushbikes, sustaining repetitive strain injuries in their fingers from ringing the bell like it’s about to fall off, a lot like the way the use a horn in a car or moped. This can be attributed to either force of habit or that they think they are still in/on a motorised vehicle.
Bikes are an attractive form of transportation, especially to those staying outside of the city limits. Most hotels provide this service free of charge to guests. The only issue is negotiating the Vietnamese traffic. Cars and motorbikes tear around city streets at speed, using their horns as more of a threat than a warning device; a lazy way of saying, “This is the sound of the thing that will kill you if you don’t move quick enough!” They merge at will, size not being a determining factor -smaller gaps are only viewed as a challenge, not a limitation.
Culture isn’t lost on this place either, though.
Ancient buildings and structures dating back to the 15th century are available to peruse, at a price, with all money going (supposedly) to the ongoing maintenance of the buildings. The Japanese architectural influence is plain to see. The place is a World Heritage site after all.
In the evening, the landscape changes again.
Ladies carrying paper lanterns for tourists to place in the river for luck (“luck” costs $10 a pop) making for a romantic and adventurous view. Lights shine brightly in multiple colours as street vendors peddle merchandise. Generic souvenirs mingle with legitimate bargains as cultures past and present work the street together. A carnival style atmosphere can be found while bar promoters pass out flyers advertising drink specials. Bars flood the far side of the river, luring both young and old travellers alike. Five dollars ‘all you can drink’ is a regular deal, as well as two for one happy hour specials that last for four hours at a stretch.
Hoi An is a town that is able to maintain its old way of life while embracing its guests from around the world. Locals peddle to the ever demanding and increasing tourism market and others, like the fishermen, are able to quietly ply their trade, content in the knowledge that the tourist influx will forever be in need of the essentials of a beach and riverside town. You can lose a day by merely walking the streets and just people watching, visiting the closest beaches or being seduced by the sleepy party atmosphere of the evening.
No matter what you choose, Hoi An provides something for every individual no matter the back ground. It does not discriminate. Drink it in and enjoy.
Wayward Tip: save some money and hire a pushbike; the beach is only a fifteen minute ride away. Hell, everything is only a 15 minute ride away!