Vietnam wins as my favorite place in Southeast Asia. The food is fresh, light, and simple and there is no shortage of options for vegetarians. Coffee’s unique and strong like the people. The culture is dynamic; Vietnam went through rough phases in the past, but their proud citizens are resilient and persevering. As a result, the economy is rapidly developing.
My friends highly recommend Hoi An so I had high expectations.
However, of all the places I’ve traveled, this town ended up ranking low.
Sure, it is a romantic town with omnipresent lanterns glowing the historic district. The daytime is equally as beautiful with its preserved 16th-century architecture. Those buildings alone are worth exploring even if most of them are selling the same souvenirs or are tailor shops. Food is generally good, especially the local specialty, cau lao, but most of the overpriced restaurants are not patronized by locals.
Custom tailored clothing and shoes is a draw for the thousands of tourists who flock to Hoi An. One can arrive with a photo of an article of clothing and the highly skilled tailors can recreate it for you. Apparently, Hoi An is one of the cheapest places in the world for custom made clothing and the quality is good as well. Walk down any street and you’ll see shop after shop of fabric and similar suits and dresses.
Unfortunately, for those not into shopping like myself, Hoi An has become a tourist trap. With floods of tourists come jaded locals. It seemed that most locals with whom we interacted were just trying to sell us something; it was more difficult to have just a normal conversation. Perhaps we didn’t try hard enough though. Genuine engagement with locals was not problematic outside of Hoi An, luckily.
That being said, Hoi An is still worth a visit. Rent a motorbike (be careful, though! It’s technically illegal for foreigners to rent motorbikes, but there are shops galore handing them out like candy) and explore the area. Don’t forget Danang, the Marble Mountains, and even the Haivan Pass!
Hoi An Free Tour
One of the highlights of our stay in Hoi An was the Hoi An free bicycle tour. Eager university students volunteer their time to show people around while building their English skills. They’re busy with their studies, but still make time for volunteering, so the students genuinely enjoy what they do.
Like the name suggests, the actual tour is free, but you must cover the cost of your bicycle (30,000 dong/1.5 USD), ferry ticket (20,000 dong/1 USD) and a small donation that your guides give directly to the village people you visit (30,000 dong/1.5 USD)
In the morning, we met our guides, who were full of smiles and energy. After gathering a group of five travelers, we pedaled ourselves through the market area, weaved between people, and eventually reached the dock. One by one, we parked our bicycles on the ferry among piles of other bikes. We took a seat on a bench with the locals who regularly transport themselves to the nearby island. The kids giggled as they said whatever English phrases they knew to Adam. The views were nice and the ride pleasant, albeit cramped.
Ten minutes later, we reached the island where the Kim Bong village is located. When all of our bikes were unloaded, we pedaled on the dirt roads through the lush countryside. The green rice fields were brilliant and peaceful.
Five shirtless men welcomed us as our guides explained some facts of building a boat. The logs are first soaked in the water for one year to prevent bugs from attacking the wood. In Vietnam, most boats have “eyes” painted on the front of the boat to scare away “spirits”. The whole process for a small ship only takes about two weeks. One can purchase a boat for about four thousand dollars, but it varies. Boat building is an essential part of the village’s economy. Most of the ships are built for tourism nowadays instead of fishing and transportation like in the past. The absence of technology and fancy tools made the shop even more impressive; construction is dependent on human hands and skill passed down over generations.
Rice Noodle “Factory”
We arrived only to find out it wasn’t exactly a factory, but an eldermly woman cooking in her tiny kitchen. Vietnamese people love their noodles and frequently eat a bowl for breakfast. It takes a lot of work to grow and harvest rice in the first place, let alone make noodles from it. The rice must be grounded down into a powder, mixed with water, laid out on a hot plate, dried, and cut into its stringy shape. We got a chance to make a few noodles as well. The woman didn’t speak English, but she communicated in smiles. She even offered some rice cake snacks with noodles mushed between served with pungent fish sauce.
In between, we rested at a temple owned by a royal family. The guides and travelers sat around a table to formally introduce ourselves and have small discussions. I loved getting to hear this couple’s stories from working for the BBC in the middle east.
The last stop was the weaving “factory”. Again, I put it in quotes because it just appeared to be a home. A few women, presumably a family, worked together to weave straw into large bamboo mats that people use for sleeping. The weaving contraption took up the entire room. The woman routinely wound a piece of straw around a stick and pushed it through the strings which were separated by the contraption. She made it look like an automatic process, but it wasn’t easy nor natural for me when I gave it a try. A simple bamboo mat might take an impressive two hours. It probably would have taken me a week.
When the tour was finished, we ferried back to Hoi An and enjoyed a bahn mi (baguette sandwich with various sauces, cilantro, vegetables, and in my case, egg) at a restaurant made famous by Anthony Bourdain, Bahn Mi Phuong. The sandwich was delectable, but not any better nor worse than the sandwiches we got on the side of the street. (Perhaps because mine was vegetarian, so the meat quality might be better there.)
Overall, the Hoi An free tour is a good way to meet some genuine locals who are more than willing to show you Vietnamese culture and escape the constant touts. Bring a hat & sunscreen!
You must register prior to the tour, which happens only on Thursday and Sunday at 8am. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your spot. The meeting place is 591 Hai Ba Trung Street, where there are guesthouses lining the road. The place is called “Your Local Booking”. If you want breakfast before pedaling for a few hours, there are some cafes and restaurants in the area open early. Information is on the website, so why don’t you take a look? www.hoianfreetour.com/