A motorbike toots, swerves and misses me by barely a metre. The driver smiles sympathetically as I straighten my pushbike, and we weave through the narrow streets of the islets around Hoi An on Vietnam’s central coast.
Words by Kirstie Bedford
“Keep right,” our tour guide calls out, and I decide to put my camera away, at least until we stop. It’s my first time to Hoi An – and the ‘old town’ enthralls me. It has as much to do with the people as the rows of signature mustard-coloured buildings which line the Thu Bon River.
As we pass rice paddies and vast fields dotted with cattle, an elderly woman wearing a floral printed dress with a long bamboo pole across her back, carrying baskets laden with food, gives us a broad smile. She’s one of many locals we see strolling the myriad of narrow paths in the 36-degree heat who wave, smile or call out “Xin chao!” or “Where are you from?” as we pass. “Hello and Australia,” we shout back.
We continue out of town, where water buffalo lazily graze, and head for Cam Kim island – serene with the exception of the many motorbikes that rattle across the narrow wooden bridges we cross.
At one point, an elderly man stops working on a boat and turns to watch us. The smile on his face so welcoming, I feel compelled to stop and take his photo.
He’s obliging and stands by the river’s edge to appease us. I thank him and ask our tour guide to tell him he looks very happy. After a brief conversation the guide tells us the man is grateful to still be working, building and fixing boats, a job he’s been doing his whole life, along with his brother. It seems everyone here is content, and grateful for what they have.
We cycle down laneways and around waterways, where locals usher us into their homes, which double as workplaces.
“You’re always talking, you’re lazy,” our guide tells two teenagers he clearly knows, who are hand-weaving sleeping mats from dried reeds on the front porch of their home. They reply to him in Vietnamese, which he later translates, “We’ve made four already, and it’s only mid-morning,” then giggle and, heads down, continue working, fingers flying across the weaving loom. “You’re lying,” he tells them, but he’s laughing all the same.
Off we go to visit other families. One makes noodles, while another woman crushes sugarcane stalks in a machine at the front of her property, smashes some ice in a bag, adds some salt and we sit down relishing the cool refreshment after several hours on the bike in what seems like 90 percent humidity.
She takes pride in showing us how she uses a machete to clean the sugarcane stalks, back-breaking work which she does for hours. We stop to watch men carve clay to make pottery, and a mother and daughter molding it into all manner of things from money boxes to sculptures.
Back at our resort, La Siesta Hoi An Resort and Spa, I strike up a conversation with restaurant manager Gloria (a name she gives herself to make it easier for English-speaking guests), and she gives us directions of where to go to walk through the rice paddies. The following day, as we are heading down the street, Gloria comes running after us, after seeing us from her home, which is next to the resort. “You’re going the wrong way,” she calls out. “Follow me.” Despite it being her day off, Gloria then gives us an impromptu guided tour of not only the rice paddies, but her own neighbourhood.
“It’s a lovely place to live”, she says, “much quieter than in town or Da Nang” (the nearest city, which is about 30km away). She wants her children to grow up in the country, she tells us, where they can grow their own vegetables and have the freedom to run around. As she points down the street, a group of children run past with several chickens scattering in different directions around them.
At her house, her in-laws come out to say hello and she tells us her father-in-law sold his backyard to the resort so it could be expanded. I ask her how he feels about the rise in tourism. He was happy to sell, she insists, and then with a laugh she adds, “He can go into semi-retirement now”.
When your skin has wrinkled from too much time in the resort pool, a must-do is to head to the mountains. ‘Marble Mountains’ is a popular tourist spot in Da Nang – five hills made of limestone and marble. Each mountain is named for the natural element it’s said to represent: water, wood, fire, metal and earth. It is a well-known pilgrimage site with a myriad of caves and tunnels. One of the most popular things to do, besides walk underneath enormous naturally formed caves, is to climb the 156 steps to the summit of Thuy Son for incredible views of the surrounding area. It does pay to go early though, as it can get crowded, but these mysterious caves filled with Buddhist shrines will leave you awestruck.
Back in Hoi An, we head back to the ‘old town’, which is at its prettiest at night with glowing coloured lanterns reflecting off the river, creating a magical fairy-tale land.
The area is car-free so, besides the motorbikes and tourists, it’s relatively quiet. Here you can see wooden Chinese shophouses and temples, French colonial buildings and the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge with its pagoda.
During the day, visit one of the local tailors, which Hoi An is so renowned for, where they can turn around practically anything in 24 hours. Be prepared to go back for a few hours for a fitting, and do your research first: prices vary as much as the choice of the roughly 300 tailors in the ‘old town’.
If shopping’s not your thing, there are plenty of other options, including fishing on the river, and cooking classes where you can source food from the markets and cook up some traditional fare; or head to the beach where the water is almost as warm as the weather. Most resorts have a private section of the beach you can visit, and a free shuttle, and it’s about ten minutes from town, but be prepared for the friendly folk who will try and sell you anything from a wind chime to jewellery, and if you buy, they will be back, albeit with a smile on their face.
After a day on our feet and a belly full of banh mi (Vietnamese baguettes), we head back to the resort for a swim in one of the two glistening pools, before the lure of the top-rated onsite restaurant, ‘Red Bean’ – and with local specialties like ‘Hoi An Chicken Soup with Sapa Mushrooms’, ‘Lotus Stem with Tofu Salad’ and ‘Mi Quang Noodles’, it’s not hard to see why.
While only two and a half kilometres from the centre of Hoi An, La Siesta is a world away from the hustle and bustle of town. It sits in its own little village, where upstairs on the open balconies walkways overlook the pool on one side and local farms on the other.
Standing at the window the next morning, I watch as a woman hand-picks herbs from her garden. After a few minutes she lifts her head and gives me a broad smile, and a wave, and I consider that I’ve never seen happier people in my life. It’s then as I put on my backpack to head out on my last day of exploring this quaint ancient town, I decide Hoi An has me, and know it won’t be long before I’m back.
There are flights from all major Australian cities via Ho Chi Minh. It is roughly a nine-hour flight from Sydney, Melbourne or Perth, and then a one-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh to Da Nang, and 40 minutes by road to Hoi An.
Australians need to secure a visa to go to Vietnam. Your passport must also be valid for six months beyond your planned stay.
For more information: smartraveller.gov.au/Vietnam
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