Hoi An is a small historic town in central Vietnam. It was one of the few areas whose architecture was spared by the Vietnam war. Its cobbled streets now cater mainly to tourists, with cheap tailor shops lined up one after another, but there is still plenty of charm here. And there’s a beautiful beach. Half of the country’s border touches the coastline and unbeknownst to many, Vietnam boasts some of the most peaceful coconut-tree-lined beaches in South East Asia.
Sometimes I pick a destination based solely on a lodging recommendation, and such was the case in Hoi An. I loved staying at Ling’s house, which you can find online here. There is a new and an old property. I stayed at her old one, which is an actual house where you have use of the kitchen and laundry. (The new house is gorgeous but runs more like a guesthouse.) It was a real home in a real neighborhood, and another perfect base for adventures. When moving around so much, staying in a home is a great way to feel grounded.
Breakfast at the Local Market
Because I can’t seem to get away from them, I found myself at the market again, actually, at two of them. The first is the local market a quick walk from home, where I went every day to buy fruit, get a cup of coffee, and grab a cheap breakfast to start off my lazy day.
Staying outside the tourist zone meant I paid local prices (half) what you’d pay in restaurants in the old town. Just be prepared to sit down on those tiny plastic seats in what amounts to a series of shack-like structures.
It was at this shack on the corner (340 Cua Dai street) that I had the best bowl of pho I’ve had anywhere in Vietnam ($1.20). Pho is a beef noodle soup eaten with a big plate of green herbs, or sometimes (as I found once in Saigon) with curly shredded banana blossom.
Then there’s the Vietnamese cold-drip coffee, sweet and rich and super addicting. The condensed milk to espresso ratio is especially awesome. A mere 50 cents, and so much tastier than Starbucks.
Another happy breakfast was this plate of fruit drizzled with, what else, condensed milk, topped with dried coconut and squares of colorful jelly ($.75).
The Old Market
Aside from small neighborhood markets, there is also the old market in the historic quarter, where the best seafood, meat, and produce is sold. I confess I preferred to spend my days riding my bike in the opposite direction for a walk on the beach, not wanting to fall in love with yet another market like I’d done in Saigon, but I did put my brave hat on to go there on my last day when I joined Nga (Nya), the cook from a restaurant around the corner, to pick out some ingredients for our afternoon cooking lesson. We rode over on our bikes.
Gawking tourists aren’t so welcome here, so it was great to have a local to help me navigate the scene.
Apologies if all the animal heads are a bit grotesque. I’ve grown so desensitized to seeing animals at the market with heads on them, and animal faces on altars (I rode by an entire pig face on a Lunar New Year altar in front of a shop that day), that it may be hard to adjust back to buying faceless meat back home. A look in the eyes is a great indicator of freshness.
Time for Some Pampering
The market isn’t just about food. I stopped in this little “shop” to get my eyebrows done. I’ve been happy to find threading available all across Asia. It’s a beauty regimin I was used to back home. Glad I don’t have to give it up on the road.
Nga excused herself to ride home to take care of the baby and I was to join her there in a couple hours to cook lunch. I rode around the old town for the first time on my last day. I purposely hadn’t spent time down here, preferring instead to stay in my small neighborhood or wander the beach, but I’m glad I got to get lost here for a couple hours on my last day at least.
I’ve learned a lot about myself in these four months on the road, and one of them is that travel for me is more about the people than the place. Talking to Ling at the home stay, shopping and chatting with Nga, sitting around for a leisurely coffee at the local market with the very few other foreigners in my neighborhood, playing with the kids across the street, those are the experiences I travel for, that make it worthwhile, the realization that home is everywhere, and that we are not so different from each other as we might think.
To get a better sense of the town, here’s a gorgeous time lapse by Rob Whitworth.