Perched along the northern banks of Thu Bon River, Hoi An’s dazzling, UNESCO-certified Old Town buzzes with unassailable old-world charm, transporting visitors back in time to a simpler, more peaceful way of life. There’s no mistaking the town’s considerable appeal. Here bustling local markets jockey cheek-to-jowl with smart boutique hotels, hip cocktail clubs, and some of the very best, most authentic restaurants in the country. From its colorful Chinese shophouses and darling French colonial structures, to a magical riverside boardwalk, Hoi An is an ideal place in which to not just slow your journey down the Vietnamese coast, but to stop and stay awhile. *
On a Saturday night in Hoi An, called by Lonely Planet Vietnam’s “most atmospheric and delightful town,” packs of muscular bros uniformed in swimsuits, tank tops, and Vietnamese non las (conical hats) cross one of the short, crowded pedestrian bridges connecting Old Town with An Hoi. There’s a somewhat denser concentration of bars in An Hoi, and the bars stay open later than those on the other side of Thu Bon River.
“Wait… you haven’t been to Chiang Mai yet? Seriously, dude?”
Two backpackers swap tall Southeast Asian road tales as they squirm through human body swarms.
There are lots of bros and backpackers in clown costumes (“local dress to blend in”), and there are honeymooning couples with essentials secured safely in fannypacks. There are, too, scores of Middle American and Australian and European families — mom and dad, little pre-pubescent Bobby and she’s-growing-up-so-fast Suzy — and there are some smart-ass travelers like myself. There’s a token Vietnamese local here and there, as well, hawking necklaces and paper lanterns, or passing out fliers for bars with free drink specials, or chucking these little plastic bird things with lights or whatever the fuck into the sky. I think you can buy those things.
“Well, we went to Bangkok and we quite liked it, and…”
“Yeah, Bangkok is all right, but dude, Chiang Mai? Dude, people travel there from all over the world to see Doi Suthep and all that. Dude, you gotta go, seriously…”
Crowds of mostly white people pack An Hoi’s riverside bars and restaurants, especially those I recognize as Lonely Planet listings; Frommer’s, presumably, tipped the ones I don’t recognize. (“A visit to this old-world gem is a sure cultural highlight of any tour in Vietnam,” says Frommer’s.)
We make our way with haste to The Market Restaurant & Cooking School, a pretty little place in the same vein as Saigon’s great Quan An Ngon. By that I mean The Market has numerous stalls from which you can order myriad Vietnamese “street food” specialties, and that it did the food properly and staff was wonderful and we had a great time, but that all the same it felt like a Quan An Ngon ripoff. Not that ripping off is a big deal; it’s actually, usually, cyclical. The Market is doing well, and rightly so, which means The Market Restaurant & Cooking School 2 (and maybe 3) is likely already in development in a similar space, on the same street, from a different owner.
This is Vietnam, after all, where anything goes in business. The Vietnamese are some of the most clever, opportunistic capitalists I’ve encountered. Copycatting is common — say, Bodhi Restaurant on 111 Ngoc Rd (the one listed in LP) next to newer Bodhi Restaurant & Vegetarian on 111/A Ngoc Rd — and I smile every time I see it.
We order a feast minutes after being seated at one of the long, semi-communal wooden tables clustered in a courtyard surrounded by food stalls and festooned with paper lanterns. Grilled cauliflower florets wrapped in shrimp paste. Fried wontons with fresh crab meat, herbs, and diced tomatoes. Grilled pork salad. Huda beers. Tons of other shit. It’s all delicious.
We learn there’s an all-you-can-eat option, too — that explains, despite the table service, the passels of white-linenned white people hovering around the stalls, like Stay Puft marshmallow men and women eyeing Peter Venkman & Co. (“What is that? Okayyyy. And what is that? Hmmmm…. and where are those ‘ban me’ sandwiches? Oh, thank you. C’mon kids…”)
By the time we leave, An Hoi is somehow busier; there are somehow even more families and even more bros. Fortunately, there are also plenty of taxis.
It was the third night of our four-night, five-day visit to the area, and the second night we’d ventured into this most egregiously touristy town. Our happy hideaway was somewhere between Hoi An and Da Nang, and it was time to get back to it, and to not look back again. We were thrilled to see Hoi An — so happy to see it, really, just as I’m happy to see just about anywhere, as long as it’s not in Ohio — but parts of one afternoon and two nights were plenty enough, probably forever.
On our first trip to Vietnam, in our mid-twenties, my then-girlfriend and I were torn about Hoi An. We should go, right, even though it sounds super-touristy? Should we just skip it? If we go, we’ll have less time in Saigon, and might not have time for Mui Ne. Should we just skip it?
We skipped it. We started in Hanoi, flew to Hue, took a train to Nha Trang, hopped a bus to Mui Ne, and joined a shared minivan to Ho Chi Minh City. It was a perfect introduction to Vietnam, if I do say so myself, though we long wondered whether we’d made the right decision to skip Hoi An.
Ten years later, we got our answer.