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Hoi An

Vietnam

I discovered Hoi An thirty years ago entirely by accident. Arriving in desperate search of somewhere to eat, we ended up staying several days.

The town still holds a very special place in my heart, despite inflicting a far less fortunate accident on itself,

Petite, picture-perfect and once more or less forgotten, this cosmopolitan trading port had long since been left high and dry by the silting up of the Thu Bon River and a shift in politics favouring nearby Da Nang.

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A special place in my heart

Commercially starved, Hoi An developed a foodie vibe to keep itself nourished and in business. Boy did we eat well back then, as again on my recent visit.

 

Thirty years ago, Morning Glory was a casual drop-in café at the heart of the old town. What exactly you’d ordered was a little up for grabs, but whatever arrived always grabbed you by the taste buds and clung on in the memory. Madame Vy was committing all her recipes to paper and soon published “Taste Vietnam”, which instantly became gospel. Editions sell on eBay today for over £100.

Today, Morning Glory is five stories of well-oiled machine, like a local Wagamama, with 2 nearby spin-offs. Hungry queues form throughout the day, waiters place orders by iPad, and enticing dishes fly out of the kitchen in all directions. Despite the development, and being the obvious choice, it was glorious. My standout Hoi An meal, with the bar set pretty high. Generally, I eschew the obvious choice, but I did order a side of morning glory, deliciously flash fried with garlic and fish sauce.

Hoi An’s speciality dish is Cao Lau. This is a porky, soupy, noodle-y, beansprout-y affair with a distinctive, crispy, flat noodle on top. Like all Vietnam’s local specialities, it’s delicious, and inexpensive. The dish supposedly requires water from a particular source, the Bale Well, to perfect the crispy topping and the restaurant called Cao Lau Bale Well is, of course, the authentic place to savour it. Well, that and the myriad other places with near identical names, all claiming to be the number one source of Hoi An’s best Cao Lau. I tried two or three and the result was a clear tie. Dix points all round.

 

Hoi An old town is a compact grid of wooden warehouses, merchant townhouses, a Japanese covered bridge, ornate temples, assembly houses, a bustling food market, pretty river frontage and stroll-ability galore. The resulting blend of Chinese, Japanese and French Colonial influences, mixed with local Vietnamese flavour, reflects the town’s name; ‘peaceful meeting place’.

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State of the art rental

As a forgotten backwater, Hoi An largely escaped the ravages of the war, meaning its architecture is preserved, not quite perfectly, but with an evocative, time-enhanced character etched in.

 

Or at least it would be, if you could see any of it!

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Time-enhanced character

Almost every square meter of street front is bedecked with tourist temptations. Mostly, but by no means all, tat. Amongst the hustle, upscale boutiques for interiors, women’s clothing, designer 'T's and designer teas, sweet treats, and natty stationery are making an appearance. Funnily enough, in its trading heyday Hoi An’s warehouses would have overflowed with home ornaments in ivory, fine silk, treats like nuts, spices and tea, and that real luxury, paper. Proof that life invariably moves in giant circles.

 

The best way to describe the tragedy of Hoi An’s self-imposed accident is to picture Whitstable, in Kent; pretty as you like, with a foodie scene attracting the long-weekend crowd. Now imagine it pulling 4 million visitors a year, with a plethora of identikit hotels, a ticketing system for village entry, and an outskirts theme park featuring a son et lumiere show titled something like ‘England’s Pearl', sub head 'Whitstable, Temple to the Freshly Shucked Mollusc’

Purely out of professional curiosity, I booked to see Hoi An’s show ‘Memories: Witness Centuries of Beauty’. It’s like an opening ceremony for a provincial Olympics. Spectacular in parts, deeply naff in others, populist and ‘educational’, if you can follow.  (Sit on the left hand side for English subtitles). Its tone perfectly sums up the town’s fate: success brings shallowness.

 

Other places I love, including Luang Prabang, Galle Fort and Matera take note.

But I don’t want you giving up on Hoi An, it’s still utterly enchanting and inspiring, when you look for it. And probably my favourite place in Vietnam.

 

The Cantonese Assembly House; Hội Quán Quảng Đông is a particularly enchanting spot. Compact, ornate, atmospheric and serene.

The Assembly Halls gave immigrant communities a safe space to gather, worship and conduct social and commercial business. Nowadays, the five remaining examples form a mini circuit around town. You could do them all in a day.  But I like to linger, photograph and paint, so it took me almost a week. The Cantonese House features a small but perfectly formed courtyard garden to the rear with a characterful tangle of rong - Vietnamese dragons - as its centrepiece. I spent two or three peaceful hours committing the dragons’ writhing forms to paper.

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Atmospheric incence

The writhing later repeated itself in the contorted trees ‘posing’ in front of the town’s major monuments.

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Lanterns are Hoi An's 'thing' 

If food is one of Hoi An’s ‘things’, then lanterns are another. No self-respecting tree strikes a sinuous pose without being bedecked by paper lanterns. Big and small, round and ovoid, plain and ornate, red, yellow, blue and gold. By day they waft, by night they glow. No restaurant, ca phe or rooftop bar misses the opportunity to advertise itself via the medium of lanterns. It’s very good advertising, creating just the right inviting impression.

Lanterns soon found their way into every one of my Hoi An paintings, (whether I could actually see any or not).

 

As night settles, the colours are amped up. Little paper lanterns float delicately, amidst the flotsam of tourist flotillas paddling up and down stream. Multi-coloured reflections jostle with the luminous pink lifejackets tourists are obliged to wear. The brightly painted boats complete the cacophony of colour.

Dusk is certainly Hoi An’s showpiece and thousands flock to the riverbank to soak it up.

Setting up on the riverbank to commit it to paint, I found a convenient mooring bollard made an impromptu table. As dusk came, an enterprising man arrived on his cargo bike, placed chairs around all the remaining bollard tables and sold drinks with a prime river view from his bike. He did good business out of me as I worked long into the colourful night, spurred on by a cool Saigon beer or two.     

 

In the tiny park near the main bridge an interactive audience participation gameshow touted its bizarre format. The rules were utterly impenetrable but seemed to involve some kind of random variation on Bingo, with flags, bamboo sticks with text on, and audience members brought to the front ostensibly to pick a number blindfolded, but mostly to have the mick mercilessly taken out of them. I could have got that entirely wrong. The other feature seemed to be none of the audience winning their money back. I didn’t get that wrong!       

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Dusk: Hoi An's Showpiece

Another of Hoi An’s things is tailoring. You can get anything made to measure in about 48 hours. Although it looked to me that styling had barely moved on since Yaly Couture made my cream linen ‘Man from Del Monte’ suit in the 90s. If you fancy the idea, bring a favourite jacket, pants or dress with you. One thing the Vietnamese do exceedingly well is copy.    

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Teochew Assembly Hall

As ever, the best way to explore Hoi An is using your own two feet, whether pedalling or strolling. You could subcontract the effort of threading through the crowds to a cyclo driver, but you'd miss the most important thing about exploring; stopping. With nooks, alleys, perfectly framed frontages, art directed trees and curiosities at every turn. My method is always to head to a particular destination, but expect to spend most of the day actually making it there.     

 

Amongst the diversions are the inappropriately named businesses. I had my laundry done by the fortunate Mr Hung. But I didn’t stop to eat at the street food stall named Hy Phat, or the equally appealing Dung, which was doing a roaring trade.  And as for the Doo Doo Premium Ca Phe and Ding Duong Massage.

If you’re still on the fence I must stress the welcome. By and large the locals are warm, curious and  genuine. Occasionally too much so. One lady was joshing with me as I painted, removing the buds from my ear and popping them in hers

to sample what I was so utterly focused on. I’m not sure who baulked most, me or her, hearing rapper MC Solaar in full flow.

 

Certainly, when I spent half an hour in the local police station - my bike impounded for being parked illegally (long story) - the full resourcefulness, goodwill and good humour of my hotel swung into action to locate and retrieve my trusty two wheels.

Who knows how much of Hoi An’s unique charm will still be visible when I return, but even now, 6,000 miles away my Vietnamese ‘hood calls me back. And I picture it, clear as day.

A Few Links and Practicalities

(Just sharing the love. I absolutely don’t get paid for these.)

 

Anantara Hotel:  https://soleilboutiquehotel.com/

If you’ve got the cash, this is the place.  Sadly, it was beyond my means, but I found the next best thing, (below).

Almanity Hotel:  https://almanityhoian.com/en/the-resort/

Anantara-ish and affordable-ish. Normally I’d baulk at a room named the ‘Executive Suite’, but this generously sized room offers “a captivating ambiance for creativity, to cater for artistic travellers”.  How could I refuse?!  I wasn’t disappointed.

 

When to come?

It’s essential you do your research on weather carefully. More so here than most places. If you’d been strolling down the main street in November, the flood waters would have been over your head.  January is dryer, but a little chilly. Late Feb when I was last there was good, but later in the year gets super hot and muggy. 

 

Quán Cao Lầu Bá Lễ

This was my favourite Cao Lau place. The chances of you finding the exact same one are about 50:50, but really, you can’t go wrong, whatever.

 

Hoa Hiên Restaurant

Great food and vibe.  Convenient if you do visit the Memories show over the bridge.

Better option is to get a table outside at the back and watch the show happening in the distance across the river.  Probably the optimum distance!

Don’t miss;

Dusk. But, given how crowded it gets, I also really rate first thing in the morning. Great for purposefully aimless wandering.

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