I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My wanderlust can bear with that twenty-one hour journey in the dead of night.
Alright, so that's about all the Elizabeth Barrett Browning this sad excuse of romance poet can provide you. That's the thing really. When you are surrounded by quaint little houses, small cozy streets, and colorfully lit lanterns all in a relaxed riverside setting, you suddenly turn into the most romantic of romance poets, albeit a bit tired and worse for wear from that long bus ride. This is what Hoi An, a small little town in Central Vietnam, can do to you.
Vietnam is known for being that big, brash, and most chaotic of the Southeast Asian countries, where motorcycles in all its shapes and sizes zip in, zip out, and generally rule the streets; where everyday conversation among locals is a shouting match; where shopping takes the form of an intense debate as you haggle for the best price. Natural, I suppose. The top two Vietnamese destinations, Saigon in the south and Hanoi in the north, are precisely these big, brash, and chaotic cities the country is known for. Then you travel down (or like me, up) the coast and discover Vietnam's quiet, peaceful side. It's quaint and quiet little towns. Then you come upon the prettiest one of them: Hoi An. A town so pretty, UNESCO of course noticed and stamped it a World Heritage Site.
Hoi An is 21 hours from Saigon and 17 hours from Hanoi. The travel time seems long and it is. Either that or you fly to Da Nang, Vietnam's third city, the gateway to the country's central regions. It is all worth the effort (and money) though. As soon as you step on one of them small streets flanked by small yellow houses, you will as many travelers did before you fall in love. Just like me, it will be the prettiest little town that you ever did see. There are fewer motorcycles here and in some days, none at all, as they close off all streets to vehicle traffic. Somehow, people seem gentler, too. They won't shout at you for walking into their store to just look around, something I learned the Saigonese shop owners have an aversion to. You still haggle here, yes, especially for the town's well-loved souvenir—custom tailored dresses, shirts, and suits. But haggling is easier and somehow that little amount you gave in to becomes a beautifully designed and very functional piece of clothing in your traveler suitcase.
It is hard to imagine that not long ago, Hoi An was the financial capital of one of the largest civilizations in Southeast Asia, the Chams. Imagine. This quaint, pretty little town was one of the big players in the big league that is Southeast Asia's trade and commerce. Later, when the Chams moved further south down the coast, the Vietnamese took over, governing from their imperial capital Hue, not far north of Hoi An. It became a very important trading port in the South China Sea, in fact, that the Dutch, the Indians, the English, the Portuguese, the Chinese, and the Japanese all came to Hoi An. Somehow, however, it's the Chinese and the Japanese legacy you prominently see on the streets of Hoi An now. The Chinese in all those shops and ancestral buildings and the Japanese in that bridge of theirs, something which linked their cluster of houses with the rest of the neighborhood. The Japanese Bridge, of course, is now the town's most famous landmark.
As contrasting as its history is to what it looks like today, Hoi An is well worth the visit. It has become quite touristy, which means you share with hordes of tourists what little street space there is in that pretty little town, and you see shop after shop selling the same souvenir items. But I promise you, if you sit down on one of the cafés, preferably right by the river, order a cup of coffee or a beer, and take a breather, you will find out that Hoi An's charms are still there. You never know. You might find yourself scribbling a romance poem right there and then.
*More photos of Hoi An in my Flickr set Vietnam: Hoi An.
Did Hoi An charmed the romance poet right out of you? What is the prettiest little town that you ever did see?
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