After Hoi An we would journey to Hue, the ancient imperial capital and known as a culinary centre of Vietnam. We enjoyed Hue but I found the food no better than in Hoi An, but we were lucky enough to have some outstanding local meals in Hoi An, sampling Banh xeo and Cao lau, and of course a lot of pho.
Vietnam Voyage: Hoi An
Hoi An is situated about half way up the curve of the Vietnam coastline. An ancient merchant town, it was a prosperous and multicultural city for centuries until other larger ports took away the main stay of its commercial life blood.
Miraculously, the old town survived the American War intact and today is a glorious window into the past. Occupying only a few small blocks, the old town is a huddling of one or two-story plaster houses, all painted cheerful sunshine yellow. Most are a mix of colonial, Japanese and Chinese influences, with original lichen covered tiled rooves, wooden balconies and decorative carvings and sensible shuttered windows.
For me, Hoi An was one of those towns that is so deliciously picturesque, you find yourself photographing it almost endlessly, from different angles, from this part of the street, from further up the street. I took over 500 photos in just three days.
Task one for our time in Hoi An was tailoring! Hoi An is known for its tailors and hand-made clothes and shoes. Walking through the old town, there is barely a shop front that isn’t a tailor. The store fronts run; tailor, tailor, shoes, tailor, restaurant, tailor, temple … and repeat. September 1 was the national Independence Day holiday and we had to make sure our clothes were made before then so we weren’t caught out. So despite arriving in town at 7:30am after a most unpleasant night on a bus driving from Na Trang, that afternoon we did some serious shopping.
We’d had a recommendation for a good tailor from a British gent named Magnus we’d met in Da Lat. It was a large shop run by a kind but no-nonsense woman and her husband. The walls were lined with swathes of fabric and the shop cluttered with dummies wearing examples of their work. Between us we ordered 8 dresses and a coat (Jane) and I got 2 dresses, 2 skirts, 2 pairs of pants and a suit complete with shirt (not for me). Cost of tailoring including materials for all but the suit? $160. Ready in 2 days.
Our one day to be a tourist in Hoi An took us out to My Son (pronounced Mee-Sun). My Son is an ancient burial site from the Cham kings, who ruled Vietnam for centuries. It is tucked away in the jungle and is a sort of Vietnamese version of Angkor Wat. The earliest known burials here were in the 4th century but most of the complex dates from between the 7th and the 13th centuries. It is a holy site and was thought to be the domain of gods and goddesses and the priests that attended to them. My Son was excavated by French archaeologists in the late nineteenth century and is now a major tourist attraction.
The ruins themselves were charming and interesting. Tumbled down and overgrown, you could see the obvious signs of destruction even in the best preserved sites. Despite the passing of centuries, My Son when it was ‘discovered’ by the French was in excellent condition. That is until 1968, when the Viet Cong, hiding in the temple complex, attracted the attention of the US Army who bombed the place to smithereens.
Back to the township though, I would be lying if I didn’t admit that what made Hoi An for me was a wine bar. Yes, after just a couple of weeks I was tired of beer, bottled water and coca-cola so when we found The White Marble Wine Bar that offered French, Australian, New Zealand and Argentinian wines for the price of $4 a glass I was thrilled. We might have ended up there every evening of our stay, at least once a night if not twice.