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Monday, 24 September 2007

A Little Euro Flavor in the Heart of Vietnam

Written by Aaron Horwitz
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Last May, I headed off to Southeast Asia – where the US dollar stretches a bit further than it does in Europe – and while backpacking through Vietnam, my two travel companions and I stumbled upon Hoi An, a small town on the central coast that just might be Southeast Asia’s most European city – at 1/5th the price.

We arrived in Hoi An at 6 a.m., dreary and sore after a 13-hour overnight bus ride. That early in the morning, the town was still sleeping, the shops were boarded up, and there was nary a vendor or moto in site; a breath of fresh air after the hectic hustle and bustle of Saigon and Nha Trang. The hostel where we’d planned on staying was also closed, but a smart little man with a brochure in his hand saw his opportunity and seized it. He flashed us a flyer for the Phuoc An Hotel, a place that on paper, looked too good to be true: our own room, two twin beds, private bathroom with shower and bathtub, hot water, a TV, a mini-fridge, and – most importantly – air conditioning. Naturally, this shouldn’t sound “too good to be true” for the traditional, non-backpacking tourist – it is the norm. But, we were offered all this for just $10 a night.

hotelWe were skeptical but exhausted, so we partook. And sure enough once we arrived, we learned that he had fudged the price a little. Since there were 3 of us, the price skyrocketed to an outrageous $12 a night—that’s four bucks a piece, people. And this place was great: free breakfast, a (somewhat dingy) swimming pool, and complimentary use of the Internet—nice perks for us penny-pinching backpackers. Our view wasn’t so bad either.  But the room wasn’t the only thing that came cheap in Hoi An.

See, the best sites Hoi An has to offer come completely free of charge. Once the town woke up, we explored on foot, and were again elated at how quiet the place was. The city center, the largest part of town, contained no fluorescent lights, only a few stoplights, and few buildings more than four stories tall. Curiously, every other store was a tailoring shop with a myriad of colors, fabrics and finely dressed mannequins proudly displayed for all to see. We soon learned that Hoi An was the tailoring capitol of Southeast Asia!

Unable to resist temptation, we found a tailor shop and each of us were instantly whisked away to separate corners by women in ornate red silk dresses. A half hour later, we departed with a few less dollars in our pockets. 24 hours later, we returned to pick up our new, custom made clothing. I bought a very nice button-down dress shirt that fit perfectly (for a mere US$10) and a custom-made green hooded jacket (note to future travelers: unless you’re a fashion designer – which I’m not – you may want to shy away from designing your own jacket!).

The next day, with new clothes in our packs and the sun on our backs, we borrowed bicycles (for free, courtesy of our hotel), and rode an easy 6kms to a lovely beach on the outskirts of town. If you’re going to the beach, prepare to be hassled by the pushy (but friendly) older women who walk along the beach selling everything from playing cards to bottled water (never pay more than 33¢ a bottle).

While the beach was nice, the best part was the ride; we cycled through shanty suburban neighborhoods, along a beautiful river, and across iconic lush green Vietnamese rice paddies. The scene was Vietnam at its finest.rice paddies

But, Hoi An still has much more to offer. The streets of Hoi An’s Old Quarter make its modest city centre look like a modern metropolis. Motor traffic doesn’t dare drive down these tiny one-lane streets. The sidewalks are paved with cobblestones (reminiscent of Switzerland or Germany), and the beautifully decaying buildings, most of which remain from the 19th century, show off a combination of Chinese and French architecture.

Hoi An offers plenty of cheap, delicious food options, as well as some excellent souvenir shopping. And if you’re lucky to be here on the 15th day of the Lunar month, your eyes will be treated to a town that, on this night, is lit exclusively by paper lanterns. Exploring a little further to the Old Quarter’s end will take you to what is easily the most stunning place in the region, the beautiful Thu Don River. This long, breathtaking stretch of water is bursting with life and yet, one of the most serene experiences you’ll ever have.

riverA half-hour private paddle boat ride with two lovely Vietnamese ladies as your guides and paddlers will set you back 30,000 Dong (relax, that’s only US$2) and trust me, it’s worth it. A cruise down this river feels like traveling back in time, and gives a sense of daily Vietnamese life like no package tour could ever offer. Watch the local children splash around in the water as their parents wash their laundry alongside them. Observe and photograph Hoi An’s finest fisherman at work, then follow them as they take their fresh catch to the bustling riverside fish market. Slip down narrow waterways where the quiet boat traffic will evoke feelings of Venice.

If you’re traveling through Vietnam make time for a stop in Hoi An. This historic town in the heart of a rapidly developing nation will offer a peaceful reprieve, not only for your tired soul, but also for your dwindling savings account.

© Aaron Horwitz

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012