Not knowing what to expect, but slightly unimpressed by Ho Chi Minh City and its surrounds we pushed north into Vietnam’s central coastal region. The dry, desert shrub shrouded landscape is a far cry from the palm-lined, white-sand beaches we imagined. The relatively modern city of Da Nang and its resort-lined beach front were slightly enticing, but most travelers only pass through the tourist-starved city on their way to the main attraction, Hoi An.
Hoi An’s old, french-influenced buildings combined with its Chinese influence make it like no other city in Vietnam. As our cab pulled up outside our small, new boutique hotel, we were thrilled. Not only had we secured an amazing, resort-style room for a mere $20.00 US per night, but we found ourselves right in the heart of city. We wandered through the cracked, crumbling and colorful french buildings reminiscent of a stroll through New Orleans’ famous French Quarter. We were at home.
Hoi An is known for its over abundance of tailors, but nothing prepared us for the onslaught. The sun was high, the heat searing as we walked through the market area of Hoi An’s old town. Outside women wearing the traditional bamboo hats lined the roadway and overflowed from beneath a covered slab of concrete each one selling fresh fish, just-picked herbs or vegetables.
Inside a sea of stalls was filled with bolts of fabric and overzealous little ladies touting their abilities. Unfortunately, it took us several days before we made it inside the actual market itself. Each pass by produced a scurry of activity and women who tried to casually hook you into a conversation. “Where you from?” they ask innocently. Give them a single answer besides, “No,” and they’ll follow you around town pestering you endlessly. “Dress? Skirt? I make you good dress,” they would eventually say. It’s a little disheartening and extremely frustrating, but in the end you must accept that they’re just trying to make a living.
Hoi An’s tailor business is cutthroat with nasty reviews and rumors posted online and passed along to travelers through word of mouth. Unfortunately, if you’re planning on having bespoke clothing made in the historic little town, it makes finding a trusted tailor near impossible. For several days we wandered the streets of the run-down, sleepy city before settling on a tailoring service we were comfortable with. Armed with photos of suits and dresses we wanted copied, we waltzed into our chosen tailor ready for battle. We were poked, prodded and measured while bolts of colorful material were tossed back and forth as three young Vietnamese girls scurried busily around us. “One more suit,” they would say every few minutes laughing. Hours would pass with us inside the tailor’s office debating pleats here or tucks there, but in the end (and several days later), we walked away with three suits, two dresses and three shirts. And yes, the endless pleading of, “One more suit,” worked as we purchased one more than we had planned. By the time we paid the bill, we had become friends with the girls and exchanged pleasantries with an old, quiet man who each day watched intently from the back of the shop.
Aside from its burgeoning bespoke clothing business, Hoi An is known for its regional dishes served by families living within the old, thick, colorful walls of the homes within this original French settlement. One such dish, is the flavorful yet light Cao Lau, a Hoi An speciality. After a casual mention that it was in fact our favorite new dish, we arrived at the tailor our last afternoon to find the worn table in the middle of the shop cleared of its usual bolts of fabric and in turn replaced by two bowls of Cao Lau and a couple of beers. “My sister makes the best Cao Lao,” one of the girls piped up. “She made this for you.” They scurried away and left us to enjoy the thick, juicy Cao Lau noodles tossed in a light broth and topped with thin slices of pork and fresh herbs and greens.
If we weren’t at the tailor, we were at the beach. While Hoi An isn’t known for spectacular beaches, they were just what we needed. The dry landscape dipped beautifully into the dark brown sand that disappeared into the murky blue waters. The beach, scattered with circular bamboo fishing boats, was deserted during the day, but as the sun began to dip gracefully below the horizon, hundreds if not thousands of locals flooded the area. Deathly afraid of the sun, the locals opt to enjoy the lapping waters of the South China Sea by the glow of the fading sun. Pale skin as a symbol of status has faded in many cultures, but for those in Vietnam the idea of white skin is still extremely enticing. Even those working endlessly in Vietnam’s expansive, lush rice paddies during the heat of the day cover every inch of skin visible to the naked eye.
Shocked at the transformation, Dan and I wandered the beach hand in hand watching men set up tarps to block the ocean wind while women cooked dried fish over open fires. Children splashed carelessly in the warm water while their mothers plodded into the ocean still covered from head to toe in clothing. To our dismay, a young glassy-eyed toddler sucked on a ‘Biere Larue’ beer while literally stumbling through the sand.
Still, it wasn’t the old french architecture or the beautiful, mostly deserted beaches that made us fall in love with Hoi An, rather it was the city’s proximity to the beautiful Vietnam countryside and a small herb village lost in time. As we rode our bikes through the rolling rice fields to the small village we were in awe of the area’s natural beauty. Huge water buffalo grazed lazily or dozed the day away in large pools of mud, dogs barked and ran alongside our bikes and those working the endless sea of rice fields hardly gave us but a glance as we passed by. Off the main road, we peddled through narrow, old walkways laid out between crumbling, concrete Vietnamese homes and into dozens of rows of bright green herbs and vegetables.
The Tra Que Herb Village seems to be lost in time. Men and women hand weed the rows of lettuce, eggplants, lemongrass, basil, mint, etc. We walked our bikes through the soft mud to the front of an small home turned restaurant. An old, tired woman, her face wrinkled by time, sat on the front porch. She gave us a weak smile as she waved us to the back. We toured the fields of herbs with a family member as our clay pot eggplant and herb and veggie chicken was freshly prepared. One of the young girls led us along narrow concrete walkways picking the leaves of fresh herbs and handing them to us to taste as she went.
Maybe it was the atmosphere or maybe it was the lesson on growing herbs we’d just received, but either way the food was some of the most flavorful we’ve tasted. There we sat reveling in the delightful fresh food, the herbs a perfect compliment to each dish, while sipping fresh carrot and coriander juice or cucumber and mint puree.
The herbs in the Tra Que Herb Village are truly like none other thanks to the fertile algae from the Tra Que Algae Pond that’s spread through the crops to add unparalleled nutrients into the soil and flavor into its offspring. As the sun began to sink lower in the sky, we peddled our way back to the beach to once again watch the locals revel in time with family and friends.
The next day, a simple ride on one of Hoi An’s colorful boats down the Thu Bon River revealed an entirely different side of Hoi An’s foodie industry. Our overly enthusiastic captain filled the boat with smoke as he ripped back the warped wood covering the engine and subsequently poured gas from an old plastic bottle into the car-like motor. The boat rocked its way down the murky, mud-colored river alongside lines of fishing boats toting men pulling in their nets hoping for a catch.
As the boat glides effortlessly downstream, we pass children playing along the riverbanks and women washing clothing in the flowing waters. As we round a corner into the beautiful palm island, an entire floating mass of palms, a man in a traditional bamboo fishing boat emphatically and exhaustively rows his way toward us waving wildly. As the man reaches to grasp the thick, wooden side of our boat, his mission is clear. He wants money. Unfortunately, our pockets are empty and it leaves us floating amid the palms with a man clinging tightly to our boat, his face and eyes pleading for something, anything. Our driver politely waves the man off and eventually returns us to Hoi An’s old town shore.
It’s definitely not what we were expecting when we pictured Vietnam ahead of our arrival. The rolling rice fields, yes. The historic French buildings caught in a cultural time warp, no. But, it shouldn’t be surprising, the French fought for control of Vietnam for years, as far back as the 17th Century, eventually folding it into their French Indochina empire until the Vietnamese regained control in the French Indochina war in 1954. Still, the French left their mark on Vietnam and few places is it more pronounced than in Hoi An.