Vietnam, for reasons I’ll explain in my next blog post, was my least-favorite country of the 16 Him and I visited on our World Trip. Hoi An, despite the ridiculous lack of leg room provided on the JetStar flight we took to get there, was an exception. The former port trading town is located in the middle of the country, between Ho Chi Minh City to the south and Ha Noi in the north.

We arrived via Da Nang’s airport and took a metered taxi on a frustratingly circuitous route to Hoi An, located roughly 40 km away (as a side note, this was the first – but not last – taxi ride of the trip in which our driver suddenly jerked off the road to urinate. Each time the vehicles left the asphalt, we braced ourselves, expecting to be robbed and then thrown from the vehicle). But we ultimately arrived safely at our hotel, the trip costing 430,000 VND ($21.50 USD).

If Southeast Asia has you beat, a detour to Hoi An may provide the kind of relaxing, no-brain tourism you need. In addition to beautiful Cua Dai beach showcasing views of the Cham Islands, the town offers a picturesque and historic, UNESCO-designated downtown. By hiring a bicycle ($1 USD a day), one can easily travel between the middle of town and the beach, roughly 5 km away. We did just that, renting the bikes from our hotel.

To visit Hoi An’s heritage sites, you must purchase an official attraction pass (120,000 VND / $6 USD) from one of the information booths in town. Although it’s only valid within 24 hours of the purchase date, the pass provides entry into any five of the town’s 21 historic sites including centuries-old Vietnamese homes, museums and the 16th century Japanese Covered Bridge. I enjoyed the ornate Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation but was disappointed by the miniscule Hoi An History and Culture museum. The old homes, several of which are still occupied by descendants of the original occupants, provide intriguing insight into Vietnamese architecture and culture, but I wouldn’t suggest venturing into more than one or two. Each home is separated into two areas: Where the family supposedly lives and where the family attempts to pressure each visitor into purchasing miscellaneous tchotchkes.

“It’s like paying to go into a shop,” Him whispered to me as we followed an eighth-generation resident of the Phung Hung house past tables of embroidered linen.

The Phung Hung home was built in 1780 and features a mash-up of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese architecture. According to our guide, the first floor never fails to flood each year (a whole half-meter 2 years ago!) and family members must funnel furniture upstairs through a trap door to protect it from the water.

I wasn’t a fan of the Phung Hung house solely because the resident Min Pin tried to eat me when I cooed at his friend, the resident shepherd puppy. (He – the Min Pin — was a bad dog.)

Oddly enough (or maybe not so oddly, if you know me), my favorite memory of Hoi An is the time I spent with the local fishermen near the jetty. Him was sick in bed with a cold that day, so I decided I would spend the afternoon photographing the abundant rice paddy fields and perhaps some beach scenes.

I biked from town to Cua Dai Beach and then, on an impulse, turned right, pedaling about 4 km to the lighthouse and boat docks. To the utter dismay of a confused port official, I sat on the dock for about an hour and photographed the fishermen as they leaped from brightly colored bows onto the concrete to file some sort of paperwork.  Most of the fishermen smiled and waved at me and some asked where I was from, giving me thumbs up when I told them.

After about an hour on the dock, I decided to get a closer look at the jetty, so I pushed my bicycle onto the sandy spit of land leading in that direction. There I met an elderly, bare-chested French tourist who informed me that if I followed the water line, I would soon come across some friendly fishermen who might let me photograph them as they hauled in their catch. Sure enough, I found a humble lean-to and its occupants: A stick-thin, glassy-eyed fisherman, his smiling wife, an albino man who seemed to work with them and a scruffy dog who had recently delivered a litter of puppies.  None of the four spoke a word of English, but they welcomed me into their home, showing me the exposed, straw platform where they slept and the scale they used to weigh the fish. From somewhere, the woman produced unopened packages of cookies and sesame sticks and offered me some. Based on my surroundings, I deduced the store-bought snacks were a special luxury and felt honored to share them.

By writing in the sand, the fisherman indicated he was 65 years old and his wife 62. I traced a “30” in the sand and pointed at myself. Then, because I suddenly felt awkward and didn’t know what else I could easily communicate, I displayed the pictures I had taken of the fishermen at the dock.

When I pointed to an image of an odd, bowl-shaped dinghy and indicated I liked it, the woman grew excited and had me follow her out onto the beach. We approached a giant, handmade reel and she motioned for me to climb onto the raised platform behind it. We sat side-by-side, our legs dangling off the platform, and she showed me how to pull the spokes toward me and then push them down with my feet. Eventually, our efforts caused a massive net to surface offshore. The work became more difficult, the sodden netting heavier and heavier with each rotation of the reel.

Halfway through our hauling, the woman climbed down from the platform and motioned for my camera to take a picture. At first, I balked.

“This family has next to nothing,” I thought. “What if she runs off with my camera?”

But I gave it to her. She snapped a few (good!) shots and then handed it back to me with a smile. I left most of my photography gear on the beach with her as her husband rowed the two of us out to the net in his own bowl boat so we could collect the few fish suspended there. My gear was all there when I returned. Of course it was.

Back on shore, I thanked the trio for their time and generous hospitality by leaving a 100,000 VND bill. It wasn’t much, but the woman’s smile and glistening, grateful eyes said otherwise. I instantly wished I had offered more. I still do.


Favorite Hoi An Restaurants:

I don’t think we had a single bad meal in all of Hoi An, a town known for culinary delights like Cao Lau. Here are some of our favorite restaurants:

Bale Well, 45/11 Tran Hung Dao Street, Hoi An: We chose to eat at this unique restaurant after reading stellar reviews through TA and the NYT. We were not disappointed! There’s a set menu of Nem Nuong, spring rolls you make yourself. The employees bring plate after plate of various vegetables, meats and more to your table. They’ll show you how to properly stuff rice paper with the fillings and then there’s some amazing sauce for dipping.

Vina Ngon, 399a Cua Dai Street, Hoi An: If you like dumplings, ask for the Banh Bao. If you like cats (no, not to eat!), ask for Little Buddha.

Miss Ly Cafteria, 22 Nguyen Hue Street, Hoi An: Be sure to try the Cao Lau. Mmmmmmmm.

Com Ga, where the Japanese Bridge canal meets the waterfront, Hoi An: Simple, cheap, filling chicken and rice.