Hoi An – A city lit by lanterns.
Jane Wilson travels to Vietnam and names Hoi An as her favourite place.
Enchanting is one word to describe it. Hoi An is quaint and boutique, a fusion of humble life, scattered with hints of western influence. Lanterns replace street lights, homemade decorations bedeck traditional riverboats . Fascinated tourists mingle with Vietnam’s own residents, fashioned in their pointed bamboo hats, topping their decorated Áo dài, their national dress.
. A historical and once turbulent land, the architecture reflects years of many tales and struggles. Once a thriving port, it is today a UNESCO-listed ancient town. It offers unique heritage with a blend of French-colonial and Asian structures.
Old buildings house boutique restaurants rubbing shoulders with locally adapted eateries. Stir-fries, hot pots, sweet & sour varieties and the Vietnamese trophy soups fight for space on the menu. Coffee shops framed by heavy thick doors open into stylish interiors, not lavish, but welcoming. Maybe order an egg coffee but be ready for the thick layer of condensed milk and an uncooked whisked egg to give a distinct taste – rich and sweet. An acquired taste.
Assembly halls and temples, historic homes, museums and a covered bridge. Buy a book of tickets and the choice is yours to select your favoured places of interest. And there are many, subtly embedded within the town. Visit the 17th century Chua Ong Pagoda, the ornate Fujian Assembly Hall and the Jinshang Temple which is dedicated to the goddess of the sea. Pass the Old House of TanKy, the former home of an 18th century merchant and cross the 400-year old Japanese covered bridge or test your skills in a class at the renowned Red Bridge Cookery school. Look closely as you may miss them. Think of it as a treasure hunt and well worth the find.
Traffic lights? Forget it. Your safety is in your own hands – scooters galore, laden with plants, or a mini garden, a wardrobe – probably a family heirloom and families of four, even five, evenly balanced. You name it, it will be sure to be seen wrapped around the driver or precariously attached to a Vespa frame.
But Hoi An is best experienced in the front seat of a traditional cyclo (three-wheeled bicycle) veering close and personal with everyday life, weaving through the streets, dodging obstacles along the way. Crammed markets exude aromas of unknown identity. Frantic buying and selling from expressive faces keen to do business from cross-legged vendors seated on the ground. Artisan wares such as crafted cards sold from smiling children on the street, so hard to resist. Body massages, foot spas, street food traders, pavement rice sellers and tailors with tape measures at the ready to get suits sewn up in record time. A cacophony of activity, an intersection of cultures.
But it is at night when this ancient town shows off its true beauty. The streets and interlacing alleys unite to create passageways of light with coloured lanterns draped between structures forming an ornate magical atmosphere. The river alights with glowing candles placed by wishful passengers travelling in long boats decorated with fairy lights and flowers reflecting onto the water. Special experiences and lasting memories for its visitors. And me – I’m one of them.