Smiling faces, sparkling lights covering the tree-lined streets, ostentatious but lovely Chinese temples galore, silk and tailor shops ready to create anything your heart desires, European-style sidewalk cafes boast outrageous cocktail menus, and to top it all off, radiant rainbow lanterns glow from every storefront. Vietnam just got a whole lot better.
Of the month I spent in Vietnam, Hoi An was by far my favorite city. It might have been in part to some awful experiences in the socialist north (getting ripped off, harassed, not to mention the usual sunburn and food poisoning stories) where the locals always had a quick scowl, creepy leer or grimace for a funny smiling white girl like myself; but it was most likely just because Hoi An is simply a magical place.
It gave me just what I needed: relaxation, luxury, and genuine smiles. Me and my travel partner splurged and stayed at The Thanh Xuan Hotel (Long Life Hotel). For a heavily discounted rate of $28 a night we got marble floors, fountains in the lobby, grinning staff in cute perfectly tailored silk dresses, a back garden with a pool, views of rice paddy fields, and a room complete with a balcony, air conditioning, and a jacuzzi bathtub. Poolside brunch was included in the price. I was expecting fruit and coffee and instead was treated to fresh baked bread, customized omelets, and so much more.
And the extravagances didn’t stop there. In this city for prices I could afford (I was averaging about $25 a day on accommodation, food, drinks, and travel; everything besides the occasional shopping splurge) I treated myself to Swordfish carpaccio; french wine, passion-fruit, pineapple, and fresh orange infused sangria by the pitcher; thin-crusted pizza with real buffalo mozzarella; seared tuna and mango sandwiches; and Irish coffee with real Jameson whiskey….. Backpacker gone decadent!
To me Hoi An was an oasis of beauty and opulence. Not that I had to spend money to have a good time, just taking a walk was an adventure through the brightly colored city. We found avocados at the market! We bought a bag to add to our sandwiches and salads. We drank $0.25 beer at a small restaurant and made friends with the workers. Even the Vietnamese here dislike the Northerners that never seemed to crack a grin. “They have sour faces. No fun. No smile!” says our grinning waitress, validating my judgment.
Adding to Hoi An’s luxury feel, the city is famous for its silk production which has spurred a huge tailor market. Numerous shops encompass every block, ready to create anything from a suit to a wedding dress to four inch heeled boots in any style and fabric you could want. I ordered a long black wool jacket with a pink striped lining, and a sexy black and pink pinstriped vest with a Chinese collar and low neckline. It felt strange to be shopping for winter in the hot tropical heat, but I knew as soon as the rain hit in back at home in San Francisco I would be grateful. Plus, for $40 how could I say no?
Like anything there are legit tailors and the ones ready for a quick buck that seem to vanish after taking your money and delivering you with a new wardrobe that will fall apart faster than your old flip flops. Check out this guide for choosing a tailor, and this one for bargaining tips.
Besides eating and shopping there is a ton of temples and historical houses to explore. The tight streets of the old town are shared with rice paddy fields. You can take rides up the river or bike the roads to the countryside. Every full moon is “Hoi An Legendary Night,” in which all motor vehicles are banned and the city comes alive with even more lights, food vendors and live music and performances.
The city just has a brightness and vibrancy about it that is unique. However at the same time it possesses the energy one looks for in an Asian excursion: the bustling markets, the motorbikes whizzing by carrying families and livestock, fresh phở on the street, and an indescribably feeling that you can only have when the weather is hot and humid, you are far away from where you came from, and feel simultaneously both familiar and adventitious in your temporary home.
*post written by Kyra Bramble. For more of Kyra’s writing head to her website.