HOI AN, VIETNAM
02/11/2015 - 02/16/2015
Not to be confused with Hanoi (which I have done nonstop), this place was my favorite spot I've seen in Vietnam so far and the place we spent the most time (6 days). First off, this ancient town is in central Vietnam, has access to the beach and a river runs through the town so the vibe here was waaaay more mellow and chilled out and beautiful. Scooters are still here but more ride bicycles or walk around the town. All the buildings are super old school looking and worn down but in a way that makes every picture look super hipster and awesome. Definitely one of the most picturesque places I've ever seen.
We stayed 4 out of our 5 nights at Essence Hotel Hoi An which was a great value for the location and had a good pool. Since I've been with Jon, we have not been staying in hostels more like actual hotels or boutique hotels. For Valentine's Day he treated me to a night in a fancy resort hotel called Alma Courtyard which had the best pool I've ever been in. To top it off, the hotel came with a full massage and spa treatment included in our stay FO FREE!
Highlights here were renting a scooter of our own (Jon drove because I'm certain I would crash) and exploring the countryside full of rice paddies and locals. It only costs $5 a day to rent one and $2 for gas so we did this a few times - one of which we ended up getting a flat tire but luckily an auto repair shop was around the corner and replaced our tire for $5. It was almost too convenient that we felt like it might have been a scam but oh well. Since we now had access to outside the quaint old town, we were able to see what will be the future of the area between Hoi An and another main city called Da Nang (30 mins apart). There were probably about more than 30 or so fancy resorts being built on the beach area between these 2 cities but it was odd since those that were finished looked as though they were empty and it was sort of eery seeing all this money and work put into making the area nice but no tourists to occupy it. It will be interesting to see in 5-10 years how popular this area will be.
There are 2 beach areas in Hoi An, either a short scooter ride away or accessible by bycicle. The Cui Dai beach is where a few fancier resort options were a bit farther out of town but since there was a typhoon in 2014 the beach here is shit now. The other beach An Bang beach was a better option and had lots of younger people and cute tiki style sun shades but came with an endless line of haggling women trying to sell cheap goods or have you buy fruit. I've gotten very good at saying no to people here since it happens a ton of times each day. It's basically like you are a walking dollar sign.
Since Hoi An is super cute and charming, there isn't a ton of nightlife here. We became regulars at this chill place called Dive Bar early in the night that had cheap drinks and live music but it was weird since we kept seeing the same people there every night who seemed as if they were permanent resident travellers in the area hanging out at their local "Cheers" bar. There were 2 bars that actually got going pretty rowdy called "Backpackers Bar" and "Why Not". The Why Not bar at midnight will actually shut down (so does the rest of Hoi An) but then they have a shuttle waiting to take everyone to another after hours bar a few miles outside of town. Imagine a school bus where you are smashed in with 4 people to a seat (aka 8 in a row) with a few drunk stragglers hanging out the front door SF cable car style.
The catch here is that they don't provide transportation home so you're stuck paying for a super expensive cab home at 3am or whenever you call it quits. Jon and I opted not to partake in that and luckily it worked out in favor for us. As we were going to walk home, another local guy across the street offered up to us and the group of 5 other travelers we were talking with, to use his bar which was basically like a garage with a pool table and bar set up inside. We stayed here for hours into the night and it truly was perfect.
Tailoring is a huge tourist money maker in Hoi An and Jon and I gladly partook in the fun. It began almost instantly when we were in our cab arriving in Hoi An, a lady on the back of a motorbike started talking to us through our taxi window letting us know about her tailor shop in town and to check her out on tripadvisor. We ended up running into her again later on the streets where she mapped out where she is located and after the background check on Tripadvisor (90 5 star reviews) we decided on her. We found out later that the common way for tailors in Hoi An to advertise is to befriend and small talk their future customers. They will walk next to you, tell you that you are pretty, ask where you are from, give a little advice for directions around town, ask how long you are staying for before dropping the bomb that they have a tailoring business where they can make anything that your heart desires.
Jon had a navy 3 piece suit made complete with a shirt for $160 that he really likes. I had a formal long black dress made for $45 which Jon claims he likes and I just sort of like. I had thought being able to make whatever the hell I wanted with my own personal tailor would be super fun but it turned out to be very stressful. There were just too many options of cut, color, style, fabric, etc that it was overwhelming to say the least. Top it off with a bit of a language barrier and you can either have the best or worst experience. I was terribly ill prepared and the communication wasn't working with the first tailor we choose. I ended up going to another tailor in town that had more example dresses on display and was able to customize the color, fabric and fit from that model which was way more fun and I was very pleased with the dress and jumpsuit I had made there ($40/each).
Besides the endless wandering around town and taking a million photos, our last fun activity in Hoi An was a traditional Vietnamese cooking class. There's a lot of options in Hoi An but we went with "My Grandma's Home Cooking" which seemed like more of a full on experience than the others where you just sit in a restaurant provided cooking space. We took a boat out on the river to an island where our teacher is from and met her 88 year old grandma who is super tiny. We learned how to make rice flour and paper used in fresh rolls among an outdoor kitchen setting that was unreal. Her backyard looked out to lush green rice patties and we had a tropical looking setup for our outdoor kitchen where we cooked 4 Vietnamese dishes. During our lessons, a loudspeaker started broadcasting the local news to us and the rest of the residents on the island which is how they get their news since they do not have TVs. It was crazy to think that's how it works for them on a day to day basis.
This cooking class opened my eyes to how much serious hard work it takes to do simple tasks. To make rice flour for example is a terribly tedious process without automatic machinery and it is still the way a lot of local people work. The work is done by women no matter how old and frail they look. In fact, that was a major theme I noticed. Outside of fisherman, mainly the women are the ones doing all the work here whether it is selling goods on the street or working hunched over in the rice fields. The most heart breaking ones were the extremely old women on the streets, trying to sell random touristy junk like clay whistles, or the ones offering up to take you around in a canoe or selling food from a street stall. They are still working as hard as ever and I know when I'm old I'm trying to just be a weird old lady that hits people with her purse and is waited on by everyone else. Just sayin.