It was a beautiful journey that took us from Dalat down to Hoi An, winding down towering emerald mountains and past paddyfields glinting in the sun. After changing buses at Nha Trang we boarded a sleeping bus, the first sleeper bus experience of many and, I’m pleased to say, I did actually sleep. The sun was shining when we arrived in Hoi An and, as we trekked down the street with our heavy bags to find our hostel, I was feeling really good about the place. It’s actually the first city in Vietnam that made an instant good first impression. Silk lanterns hang across the streets in a spectrum of shades and patterns, blowing gently in a coastal breeze. Street food stalls line the sides of the roads, different to those we’d seen before – chewy prawn omlettes and crisp banana pancakes.
Hoi An’s famous tailor shops are everywhere – backed on to the market, on the river, whole streets of tailors shop after tailors shop. This was meant to be one of the top things to do here – to have clothes made – and so this was one of the first things we did so that our garments would be ready by the time we left two days later. We wandered down a street lined with tailor shops, many with apparently five stars on Trip Advisor, and eventually just decided to go into one halfway down the street. It was a great experience, but one with so many possibilities – there are fabrics in every colour and style you could possibly want hanging on the walls and this is without having chosen what clothes you actually want. It’s a bit dangerous – something that could have you buying a whole new wardrobe of clothes tailored just for you (spending several weeks of your budget in the process). I eventually chose a dark green Vietnamese silk to be made into a bomber jacket, the lady in the shop taking all my measurements and telling me to come in the next morning for adjustments. And sure enough, the next morning it was done. I was so impressed – the dressmakers are so incredibly talented; I’d literally shown the lady a photo on Google Images and she’d perfectly reproduced it in the silk. It’s probably the coolest garment I now own – if you’re in Hoi An you must make the tailors a visit.
The tailors of Hoi An are by no means the only thing to do. Hoi An’s old town is a Unesco World Heritage Site and its legacy of temples and teahouses have been well preserved. Walking down the street parallel to the river, through a hum of tourists and food stalls, you’ll come across a temple almost every few steps, incense clouding the air and mountains of offerings placed around statues of Buddha and other deities. The Japanese Covered Bridge arches over the river, looking regal and old, echoing a different time as it ripples in the reflection of the water (Despite Lonely Planet’s assertion that it is free, you have to pay admission to cross the bridge which is crammed with tourists anyway and is much more pleasing to look at from the river, especially by night with multicoloured lanterns shimmering on the water). Walking down the river one afternoon we came across a boat race about to begin. As we stood there, a crowd started to amass on the shores, a mixture of locals and tourists, flags waving and an excited buzz in the air. We chose a team in red and white to support (the nearest to England’s colours) called Cahm An. I have never seen a boat race with so much energy – the rowers rowed so frantically that the boats were practically bouncing along the water. They did an improbable number of laps in the hot afternoon sun – ladies on the sides of the river threw water over the rowers as they leapt past (and at least one person in each boat had to bail out a load of water). Despite a huge amount of support from their newly discovered fanbase, plucky Cahm An bailed the whole race with the boatsman sweating and laughing as they climbed out of the boat (having been lapped by several other teams – they were great fun). Cahm An for life.
The second day we had taken a boat trip to the Cham Islands, the only negative part of our time in Hoi An. From the pictures we’d seen, we were expecting perfect white beaches stretching as far as the eye could see and snorkelling in crystalline aquamarine water. The beach was nice if you walked to the end, which we did, the water a lovely inviting blue. The snorkelling on the other hand was a complete disappointment. The reef that they took us to was almost utterly ruined, the remains of damaged coral haunted by a handful of fish. A group of Asian tourists were standing on the coral in some places which made me so angry that I was glad they’d taken us to a crappy reef so that the complete contempt for nature of the careless groups of tourists was limited only to a very small part of the island (which is meant to be a protected area). Not that we could see much anyway as the masks they gave us looked like they were from an antique collection of useless artefacts and you kept having to stop snorkelling to drain the water out. The food they made us for lunch was some consolation – fish baked with chillies and lemongrass, shellfish, squid with onions and amazing greens with peanuts. The return boat ride from the islands was also nice (not just because we were leaving!), bumping over turquoise waves back to Hoi An. After alighting from the boat, we stopped at the market. Fish flapped in baskets and mopeds tooted as they squeezed between stalls sprawled out across the ground, selling fruit, meat, mysterious piles of edible items and souvenirs as we approached the waterfront. We wandered back along the river as the sun set, the silk lanterns lighting up as the sky changed colour and the evening crept in.
By night, Hoi An’s lanterns light up the streets, a silken rainbow hanging in the darkness. The riverside is packed with people and street vendors – that first night we got cao lau (flat noodles with beansprouts, greens and pork) by the river. The river by night was one of Hoi An’s highlights for me. There is an almost festival-like atmosphere, with old ladies selling paper lanterns you can send floating down the river, sparkling brightly in the darkness like a forest of fluorescent water lilies. The second night (Valentines day actually) my friend Roza and I went to a restaurant called ‘The Chef’ a couple of streets back from the river. It had a rooftop terrace, with trees in pots hung with showers of gently glowing red lanterns, its tables lit by candlelight. Suffice to say, it was very romantic and we had some of the best food we had in Vietnam – fried crispy squid with a passionfruit dip and a zesty banana flower salad, fresh and zingy, with fruit and seafood. All of this with a view of beautiful Hoi An, a map of coloured lights and a sea of sound beneath us. It is a unique place I would love to return to and we urge every traveller we meet to visit Hoi An. Our memories of arguably our favourite place in Vietnam are lit up by rows of silk lanterns and shimmering sunlight on a lazy river.