I can still smell the coffee beans roasting a few months back, their intoxicating scent wafting through the air as I walked down the cobblestone sidewalks of a dimly lit coffee shop, flanked by yellow walls and trellises of Bougainvillea cascading around it. I entered the café’s cozy interiors to the joyous chatter of locals and tourists alike and the friendly smiles of the ladies behind the counter, and I stood and relished the delightful atmosphere of just one of the many cafes dotting the Old Town of Hoi An.
Once a major Southeast Asian trading port, this riverside town dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries along the central coast of Vietnam, was an important center of trade in the country. Chinese, Japanese, and European merchants traded paper, oils, porcelain, silk, and spices, leaving behind their unique blend of influences and cultures as seen through the distinct mix of architecture interspersed throughout the city. Japanese merchant houses, Chinese temples, French colonial buildings, and tea warehouses are just some of the well-preserved structures you’ll come across, living in harmony amidst the more modern reflections of lounge bars, boutique hotels, cafes, restaurants, and tailor shops catering to every tourist’s shopping delight. Yet in the blink of an eye, you can be taken back in time once again by the sight of a fisherman casting his net on the Thu Bon River or of locals feasting on “pho” and “cao lau” on the traditional low tables that dot every corner of the town’s numerous alleys. Such is the charm of old and new that pump through the ancient bleeding heart of Hoi An. It’s a city meant to be unwrapped slowly and carefully, and explored on foot, piece by piece.
Let’s start by walking through the street that runs along the Thu Bon River to enjoy the riverside scenery and sights. A beautiful promenade of shops and cafes gives you a good view of both sides of the river with breathtaking buildings not even your camera is ready for. The river is bustling with women in small boats selling vegetables and bananas, and the riverbed is lined with colorful wooden tour boats painted to perfection.
As you walk further down the street, you’ll come upon the rose-colored walls of the most famous landmark in the town’s historic district: the Japanese Covered Bridge. Built in the sixteenth century, it’s the only covered bridge in the world to house a tiny Buddhist Temple, a symbol of goodwill between the Chinese and Japanese merchant communities. The bridge retains a distinct Japanese character with ornamentation and references to Japanese history, making it unique to other bridges and buildings in the old town, which have predominantly Chinese and Vietnamese architectural styles.
If by this time, you find your stomach grumbling with the sounds of hunger prompted by the scent of rich broths steaming from various noodle shops, by all means, grab a seat and treat yourself to some of the freshest and best “pho” and “cao lau” you’ll ever taste this side of the planet. “Cao lau”, a regional Vietnamese dish only found in Hoi An, is a rich pork broth with light yellow noodles, slabs of tender pork, bean sprouts, and fresh herbs, while the more widely known “pho” consists mostly of beef or chicken. Both are delicious down to the very last slurp, and it might be a good idea to have another bowl for the road, as you wait for nightfall.
Because that’s when the real magic happens. In the darkness, the town comes alive as a magical set of visuals invade your senses in the form of brightly colored silk lanterns hanging like a rainbow canopy over most of the town’s alleys and streets. Lanterns of all shapes, sizes, and colors light up the air with romance and atmospheric vigor as couples stroll hand in hand and dine in restaurants al fresco nearby.
“…boutique hotels, cafes, restaurants, and tailor shops catering to every shopping tourists delignt.”
My favorite part of Hoi An, however, has an artistic twist to it. Along many of the city’s streets, unique art shops abound with paintings and scrolls of Vietnamese landscapes and culture captured by local artists’ brushes. I could spend hours looking at the artwork and affordable creations, which anyone can take home as a unique souvenir of a city teeming with history and mystery.
All in all, it’s easy to get lost in the ancient city’s wonder and charm that I find myself coming back again and again, and always discovering something new each time. It isn’t a surprise that in 1999, the entire city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, truly one of the most beguiling, unforgettable places I’ve ever been to.
A friend once asked me with a puzzled look, “but where exactly in Vietnam is Hoi An?” I reminisced with a smile and answered, “In the best part, somewhere in the middle.”