After a few quiet days in Quy Nhon, last Wednesday we made our way by “mini-bus” to Hoi An. (Of course, our hotel promised us a big bus….to our credit, we didn’t believe the hotel.). Now a “mini-bus” here isn’t really a bus at all. I know, I know, you hear mini-bus and you think a short bus. Nope, a “mini-bus” turns out, at least in this case, to be a van. And actually, it was a pretty comfortable van – it was new, the seats were comfortable, and the AC worked. Or so we thought. Until there were more passengers than seats (thankfully, only the locals doubled up). Or until a monk got on and several people had to move seats to ensure the monk had a comfortable seat that wasn’t next to a woman. Or until we realized that our driver was the craziest driver yet.
And if you are reading this you know that bar is high. Very high. But our driver surpassed it. Driving on the wrong side of the road? Check. Driving right underneath a dump truck as it was dumping its load? Check. (Query why the entire dump truck, instead of just the bed of the dump truck, was off the ground and sticking up so far in the air that vehicles could drive underneath it, but that is a different story). Driving at speeds far too fast for conditions? Check. In fact, I am not entirely convinced that we didn’t hit someone. We were careening along, on the wrong side of the road, when all of a sudden there was a “thud.” I’m hoping the van just took the mirror off a scooter. The driver certainly didn’t stop to check – let me rephrase, the driver didn’t stop and check until we were too far down the road to be recognized by anyone and then he only checked to see whether there was damage to the van. (We were able to look out the rear windows right when we heard the noise and didn’t see a crash scene or we would have put up a stink).
We ultimately made it safely to Hoi An, which is roughly half-way up Vietnam. We first visited back in 2004/2005 or so and fell in love with the town. Boy has it changed. When we first visited, the city was pretty sleepy, there was a single restaurant that served pizza (and very bad pizza at that), and the only reason to cross the river was to get a picture of the town. Now, it is far from sleepy with vendors constantly trying to sell you things you don’t need (seriously, does anyone actually buy tiger balm???). I have counted at least 6 restaurants claiming to serve the best pizza in Hoi An. And now across the river is teeming with hotels and restaurants. But, you know what? We still love it.
Hoi An is best known for three things: the old town, the tailors and the food. The old town area is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Hoi An was a trading city, with high populations of Chines, Japanese and Dutch, and many of the buildings date from the 15th to 19th century. Some of the buildings have been converted to museums, shops and restaurants and the like, but some are still well-preserved business centers, homes and temples. The government currently requires all the tourists to buy a ticket to even walk in the old town area which is pretty annoying, and the ticket sellers are VERY aggressive in making sure to ask you if you have a ticket. We do, but they never ask to actually see it.
The Hoi An tailor scene is out of control. Hoi An now has hundreds and hundreds of tailor shops. They will make anything and everything. They have numerous samples displayed, they have catalog books you can look through and they can copy any design you bring to them. When we first visited Hoi An, it was already known for its tailors, but the scene was far less intense – we found a good shop and had several things made that, believe it or not, we still wear 10 years later (yeah, yeah, those clothes have gotten a bit tighter over time…). Now, the tailors will actually follow you down the street begging you to buy something. It is completely out of control and not very pleasant. That said, if I had unlimited room in my suitcase and an unlimited budget, you can rest assured I would have spent the entire time here shopping – there are some wonderful clothes to be had. And, in spite of the limited budget and suitcase space, I succumbed to the allure…it turns out I am absolutely living in my skorts so I had two different tailors copy one of my skorts (while adding in pockets). Interestingly enough, the results at each store were completely different and the cheaper ones most resemble what I wanted (once I sent them back to sew the shorts in right side out). Fingers crossed they last …
Finally, Hoi An is deservedly famous for its food. There are certain dishes that are on nearly every menu here that you can’t find elsewhere in Vietnam. My favorite, cao lau, is the primary reason we are here in Hoi An – I used to dream of cao lau when we were in Chicago. It consists of some thick, chewy noodles that allegedly have to be made with the water of certain wells here in Hoi An, pork slices, pork broth, lettuce, herbs, sprouts, and some crispy cracker things. I kid you not, I ate cao lau for every single lunch and dinner we had in Hoi An except one. I even passed up each of the six “best” pizzas in Hoi An…that is how much I love cao lau. Hoi An is also known for a noodle dish called Mi Quang noodles – we tried it, and it was good, but not as good as cao lau. And, Hoi An is also known for something called White Rose, which is a small shrimp dumpling. Robert likes it and has had it several times, but I am not a fan.
Hoi An is also home to the best banh mi sandwich shop in the entire world. Anthony Bourdain says so, and Robert and I worship Anthony Bourdain. Turns out he is 100% correct (at least according to Robert, as I don’t eat banh mi). Robert’s face lit up when he took his first bite and he immediately pronounced it the best banh mi he had ever had – the only other one that even compares is the first one he ever had and then only because it was something new. (In Robert’s words, the first banh mi is kind of like sex: it might not be perfect but you will always think it was good because it was the first). In fact, as Robert was eating the banh mi, he started plotting how to get more of those sandwiches before we left Hoi An. (I had to stop him from ordering a second sandwich right then and there). And, he went right back to the same shop and ordered banh mi for dinner that night. Three of them. Yes, three. (In his defense, one of those was supposed to be for me but it turns out that it had mayo on it so I wouldn’t eat it). And then he went back and had another for lunch the very next day.
And finally, there is the beer hoi. Fresh beer. It costs anywhere from 3000-8000 dong for a glass which is roughly 13-40 cents or thereabouts. Robert enjoyed the fresh beer! (And the bottled beer, and the draft beer, and the canned beer…)