Hoi An is a place we keep coming back to.
It’s not ONE thing that draws us back, but rather a unique combination of several traits of Hoi An that just make it an inevitable long term “home base” for us… And in fact, it was home base for 3 months a few years back.
The four contributing attributes which offer such consistently superlative moments are: the charm of rural vignettes, the architectural simple beauty of the 300 year-old town, the proximity of a large, clean beach and of course Hoi An’s rich culinary tradition, which starts in daily markets and ends with a vibrant street food culture.
The charm of rural landscape
We have seen many rice fields in our travels throughout Asia. And Bali remains without a doubt a unique memory due to the tiered rice terraces. However, what distinguishes Hoi An is the combination of rice fields and the river system. It is the interplay of colors from the lush green of rice paddies and blues of the rivers around Hoi An that create such an appealing environment. A photographer or painter’s paradise and a serenity for all.
Our hotel is on the far left of the photograph, barely visible. There is a network of rivers and bridges (and streets) that make up Hoi An.
Glorious sunset over the rice paddies which have been harvested fairly recently leaving shallow reflecting pools of water everywhere in the landscape.
This narrow path leads us to duck farms on both sides as we cut through the rice paddies on our motorbike.
Just like Nicaragua….
Working the rice fields, launching a new cycle of growth.
Water buffaloes are still today used to till the fields, as it has been done for generations.
Rice is the principal crop in Viet Nam, used often to grind into a rice paste and then to make rice noodles and rice paper.
Colorful wooden and bamboo fishing boats docked on the sides of the river are a common sight.
The colorful shades of Hoi An’s architecture
The color scheme is ochre yellow and French blue. The mix of Chinese temples and French warehouses alongside what once was Vietnam’s busiest port, magnificently maintained or refurbished, contributed to Hoi An becoming a UNESCO heritage city. We never tire of strolling the streets ~ at every corner, a visual treat. (Currently we are here in the off season which is great, as there are few tourists. Even at peak season though, its pretty easy to lose the tourists, as they tend to congregate around a few central streets.)
Hoi An was an important trading port in the 15th to 19th Century. The city possessed the largest harbor in Southeast Asia in the 1st Century. Between the 7th and the 10th Century, the Cham empire controlled the spice trade in the region and Hoi An was a critical trading center In the 16th and 17th centuries, Chinese traders from various provinces, as well as Portuguese, Japanese, Dutch and Indian settled in the area around the port and the Thu Bon river.
Chinese Buddhist shrine in the center of the ancient town. Hoi An is a colorful town and it’s easy to see where this passion for color comes from.
The historic center of town is made up of old colonial buildings, often beautifully restored and converted into restaurants, shops or tailor stores.
Courtyard of a Buddhist temple graced with curved roofs and layered ceramic tiles.
Hoi An is known for its colorful lanterns, a vibrant cottage industry that employs many in the region. These lanterns grace the streets and buildings, in all shapes and colors and add to the charm of the place.
Lanterns hang across the streets. At the heat of the day, the streets are almost empty, as most people are indoors or in the shade. The Hoi An equivalent of the siesta.
Lanterns adorn the view of the Thu Bon river.
Driving a motor scooter is the best way to get around. There are very few cars in Hoi An, and almost everyone rides a motor scooter.
Typical charming street with arched entrances to shops on the sides.
View from the bridge which crosses the Thu Bon river.
The view from our breakfast spot in town on this particular day looks toward the ornately carved and decorated roof top of a temple, and small vendors in front selling their wares.
A small store which sells huge bags of white rice, a staple component used for noodles prevalent in many Vietnamese dishes
Having our daily Cafe Sua Da (Vietnamese ice coffee) at a coffee shop on the corner. Having coffee is a slow and social process for most coffee lovers here. Perhaps the French colonialist era influenced the emergence of a cafe culture….
Rural small temple/shrine, of which there are many dotted along the small streets alongside the rivers.
Our beautiful hotel Riverside Villas, has a gorgeous infinity pool, view over the river and we had it to ourselves (low season!). All for $36 a night!!!
Glorious An Bang beach
Hoi An has two distinct beaches within a short bike ride from the center of town.
Traditionally though, most Hoi An residents used to go to Cua Dai beach ~ a large beach where vendors would set up make shift fish restaurants before dusk. Vietnamese locals swim early in the morning or at the end of day. The hours during the rest of the day are considered too hot, too much sun, to go to the beach.
Meanwhile, during our past stays in Hoi An, we rejoiced at the calm and tranquility of “our beach”, An Bang. We never quite understood why all would flock to one and the other was near deserted. Sadly, our secret is out and two years have transformed this oasis of serenity into an evening open air play ground for, it seems, everyone in Hoi An.
There is an explanation to this….
When we lived here a few years ago, a typhoon (yes we were here and yes we lived through it – http://www.greenglobaltrek.com/2013/10/typhoon-nari-impressive.html ) ripped through the area and destroyed the beach at Cua Dai.
With the large Cua Dai beach no longer able to receive the throngs of beach goers, our little An Bang beach became, overnight, the new “place to be”. Imagine our surprise when we arrive, at the end of the day to swarms of motorbikes and crowds of people. At first we thought that it must be some kind of a holiday or festival, but after speaking to a few locals, we find out that, nope this is just a normal day at An Bang beach now.
Quite an unusual sight at An Bang beach… However, if we want serenity, we can still come during the day, when the beach remains empty as culture differences (i.e. the value of lily white skin) dictate. (See next blog post upcoming, focusing on cultural differences!)
A sea full of people. At this time of the year, the sea is fairly calm, warm and shallow… making it easy for many to enjoy the beach.
Families rent large straw mats to sit on. Many bring snacks and others order from the vendors who are making food on the beach.
And here is An Bang beach during the day! Deserted. Tranquil. Ahhhhh.
Just us and a few fishermen and their circular bamboo fishing boats. Bliss.
A dramatic sunset ~ it’s the beginning of the monsoon season.
Lots of drama in the sky.
And of course the food……
It all starts at the markets, where the freshness and immense variety of produce is mind boggling.
The “egg man” with an enormous basket of different pastel shades of eggs… going to market.
Fresh organic greens in shallow bamboo baskets line the sides of the street, with no space to spare. There is an enormous variety of greens and herbs, which are a core element of just about every meal.
A young girl jumps off her motor scooter, still wearing her helmet, in order to select her fresh rice noodles from the market.
Baskets of crisp white bean sprouts.
This rich food source has yielded a robust street food culture, much to our delight. Hoi An is known for quite a few gastronomic specialties.
Dishing up the goodies in style. Hoi An women love mixing prints and stripes. The bolder the better.
The quintessential Hoi An dish is the Cau Lau. It is a rustic, aromatic, noodle dish with a unique rich broth. Each Cau Lau maker has her own style of making Cau Lau, with generations-old family recipes rarely shared. But what all have in common in the liberal use of organic greens such as basil, vietnamese fish leaf, rice paddy herb, lettuce, mint and cilantro. A distant cousin of the Japanese udon due to its caliber and chewiness, the Cau Lau noodle has a smokey flavor.
Cooks take their cau lay making very seriously. There is much competition and much pride involved in having customers return day after day.
Ode to the Mi Quang ~ another Hoi An rice noodle dish specialty. (Completely different to Cau Lau.) Rice noodles, quail eggs, chives, crispy rice crackers, bamboo shoots, pork and a delicious sauce. Notice the plate of plentiful herbs to be added to the noodle dish, replenished by the vendor as many times as needed.
Banh Mi ~ According to Ben “the BEST sandwich on the planet”. We have our favorite spot of course!
A crisp just made French baguette, stuffed with five different types of pork cuts, fresh greens such as Vietnamese basil, cilantro, mint and a secret chili sauce.
Ben tucking into our morning one Mi Quang noodle dish. Breakfast starts early at 6 a.m. and is often almost over by 8. People are loyal to particular street side spots and its customary to show ones appreciation for your favorite by returning to the same place time and again.
This woman has been cooking Hoi An’s best BBQ pork on a stick at this same corner, for 35 years. She carries her “restaurant” on her shoulders and starts cooking at 3 in the afternoon. By 5 she is usually sold out.
Take a piece of thin rice paper, add a soft large rice noodle, heap of greens, pork off the stick, and dunk it all into the magic sweet and spicy sauce. There is nothing quite like it ~ street food at its world class best!
What do we have here? A Kemong seller. Kimono is a homemade “artisanal” ice cream stick with flavors such as coconut, vanilla and coffee. Only for sale in the summer months in Hoi An.
Take the greens and mix them in with the rice noodles, the sauce and everything else. Add chili or garlic to your taste. Yum! Perfect breakfast. More research needed till we settle on our favorite vendor…..
There are some places we resonate with more than others. Hoi An is definitely one of those special places for us! Every walk or bike ride is filled with beauty, every corner holds the potential for some of the best street food in the world.
And then of course, its the people that make a place what it is. We have found that people we have met are very direct, have an easy sense of humor and are not shy. To give an example of this, Ben has had numerous men and women tap and slap him on the stomach, as a gesture of camaraderie. That is his anecdote, and I (Peta) had one of the women we were friendly with when we lived here a couple years ago tell me, “You look just the same. Just fatter!” Ah yes, thanks for that!!! Like I didn’t know that already! “Yes you much fatter now” she repeated over and over. Okay, okay I get it! I am fatter now.
We appreciate and enjoy your thoughts and comments!