I wanted to resist falling for Hoi An before my arrival, with an abundance of rumors about this town being a popular tourist mainstay. I often want to go beyond the periphery of the expected and have always loved visiting places that hopefully challenge one’s perceptions of the world, or at least enhanced them. So I reluctantly visited Hoi An, admittedly with some judgement in mind.
Formerly called Faifo, Hoi An’s old town is immediately charming at first sight. Small winding streets lined with picturesque Chinese-styled shop houses, gently shaded with sumptuous bougainvillea and colorful lanterns, connected by bright walls marked with textures of centuries past.
Against my preconceived notions, the town proved to be a relaxing retreat in the middle of our tightly packed Vietnam trip. The town is very well-preserved against modern development that seems to invade Vietnam’s major cities at cruel speed, escaping uniform concrete towers with character-filled historic homes that reflect Hoi An’s diverse heritage.
There are a controversial amount of tourists and expats that love Hoi An, a group among which I reluctantly became a member. However, there seems to be a relatively uninvasive coexistence between the foreigners and locals, the exchanges between the two peaceful and mutually beneficial.
The main dish of Hoi An, Cao Lầu, was a rare Vietnamese treat I had never experienced before. I ate it many times during our stay, and it went on to become one of my favorite noodle dishes, a perfectly balanced combination of crunchy noodles mixed with a generous and varied amount of fresh local veggies & herbs as well as never frozen-before pork belly & tenderloin.
This main dish, literally translated to mean High Floor, was only available to wealthy businessmen in the past, who would enjoy it on the second floor above the poor peasant class. Nowadays, it’s available everywhere in Hoi An, from expensive restaurants catered mostly to tourists to the squat stands on the streets, which was where I devoured most of mine.
The diverse architecture and culture of Hoi An is a treasured product of its fortunate and glorious past, having been the center of the spice trade with Indonesia and then an international port to welcome ships from all over the world. When the trade moved to Da Nang, it became Hoi An’s blessing in disguise, allowing the old town to mostly escape the battles of the wars to follow.
I can’t help thinking that there is a subtle irony to the fact of Hoi An being a peaceful retreat for foreign visitors, many of them from France and the US, because the town was able to escape the wars with those nations.
One of the things I secretly enjoyed about the old town was the ban of motorbikes from many streets, keeping the strolls at leisure pace perfect for my camera’s happiness. The scenes that permeate Hoi An all make for beautiful photos; but I particularly enjoy the faces of this town, smiling eyes that welcome strangers into the geography of their homeland and furthermore their minds, despite the underlying struggle of everyday life in the still-underdeveloped region of this country.