As we dipped our feet into the warm ocean waters, taking in the last remaining traces of sunset, the sky before us caught fire. Deep oranges and reds sat hovering over the mountain-lined horizon, contained by a thick plume of dark and smoky clouds. We were barely two hours into our time in Hoi An, an ancient trading town along the coast of Central Vietnam, and were already beginning to discover the many charms it had to offer, chief among them beautiful scenery. To our delight, the fiery sky remained unchanged for the entirety of our time on the beach, but this didn’t stop us from looking up every few minutes to remind ourselves of where we were or what surrounded us. And so began the theme of our six days in Vietnam. It was never a matter of seeking out new things but rather making sure not to miss them. The sights and tastes and experiences were there, all we had to do was just walk out the door.
Long before coming on the trip we had designated our first full day in Hoi An as an unequivocal beach day. While we were aware of the abundance of cultural activities to do around the town and the limited nature of our itinerary, we were also aware of the novelty of being on the tropical shores of Vietnam and that, we deemed, deserved spending at least one day entirely sea or sand bound.
Our day, like all the rest, began with a free breakfast at our guesthouse, Loc Phat Hoi An Homestay, one of the most accommodating places we’ve ever had the fortune of staying at. Pho, a spicy beef noodle soup, was the dish of choice on the menu and we slurped up two delicious bowls of it before renting a couple of bikes and peddling off towards An Bang Beach, our first and only destination for the day.
I’m not sure how one could feel eager to do absolutely nothing for an entire day, but that’s exactly how we felt as we parked our bikes at An Bang and began the short walk to the beach. As we approached it, we weren’t met with the view of an expansive blue ocean as we had expected but instead with a canopy of grass umbrellas, each with a pair of cushioned loungers neatly situated underneath, stretching across the sand as far as the eye could see. The umbrellas, we had read, belonged to one of the many restaurants looming overhead and we braced ourselves for what would surely be an onslaught of sales pitches to choose one over the other. Before our feet even touched the sand, shouts of “free chairs” filled the air, serving as lures meant to startle us into unwittingly committing to a certain set of loungers and therefore into getting all of our food and drinks from that particular restaurant for the rest of the day. However annoying the attention being thrust on us was, it seemed like a small price to pay for the comfort of cushioned seats and shade on an already hot day and we chose two loungers at random, thus beginning our day of nothingness.
As we sat in our loungers, the pleasant but unfamiliar feeling that comes with having no agenda or real sense of time in a place where the feeling is mutual overcame us. Our obliviousness to the rate at which the day was passing first became evident as we ordered two beers only later to find out that it was barely 10:00 a.m. For some reason, perhaps due to the fact that the sun was more overhead than before, we had assumed it was closer to noon. In any case, we savored the beers, especially the first few sips, knowing that the cold and refreshing nature of them would be quickly erased by the now sweltering midday heat.
As the beers warmed, our pace of drinking them quickened and, by the time we had finished, our appetites had grown and we abandoned our comfortable seats to fulfill the oath that had secured them for us in the first place. After painstakingly climbing the six stairs to take us from the beach to the restaurant, we sat down and rewarded our effort with an assortment of dishes, one of which was Vietnamese spring rolls, kicking off a six-day love affair with the crispy treat that was a far cry from any version we had had before.
The trajectory of our day after lunch stayed pretty much aligned with our pre-lunch activities of either sitting or swimming. By this point in the day, the latter of the two became more difficult as any trip to the bath-like waters of the ocean required a frantic sprint across the now scorching beach, igniting a series of “oohs” and “aahs” until our feet finally hit the refreshingly cool touch of the wet sand. In spite of this, we still went often and had even purchased some goggles to explore whatever life existed under the surface.
To our delight, there was plenty, most notably the scattered legions of jellyfish that had somehow managed to slip through the fleet of fishing boats sitting off in the distance. Unsure of whether they stung or not, we kept our distance aside from the occasional poke of their squishy caps with our fingers. It wasn’t until later when we unknowingly swam into a small crowd of them (they were sneakily transparent) that we realized they were, in fact, not the stinging type. Apart from the jellyfish, we also saw starfish, rainbow shrimp and even small colonies of hermit crabs, who, in this particular case, failed to live up to their name as there were hundreds of them clustered together on the sea floor.
The longer we were in the ocean, the more tempting it became to return to the shade of our loungers. And, usually after a half hour or so, we did exactly that, plopping our bodies down on their cushioned surface. While we sat, the rest of the afternoon slipped away as we took in the scenery around us. Looking out, our gaze couldn’t help but be drawn first to the mountains and islands in the distance, jutting out from the perfectly straight line separating sea from sky. A bit further in, boats bobbed on the otherwise open sea and heads and bodies eventually joined them, black silhouettes evenly spaced from one another so as to create the illusion that the ocean was theirs. Waves would move around them, washing ashore in their mesmerizingly endless fashion. On the beach, between the sea and the shade of umbrellas, not a soul was to be found, only fisherman’s boats which resembled a giant overturned tortoise shells or the occasional sandal or T-shirt that was thrust aside as its owner madly dashed from one heat haven to the other.
For most of the day, this view remained relatively unchanged until the late afternoon when local Hoi Aners began arriving to the beach and the quiet wash of the waves became inaudible under the shouts and shrieks of children celebrating the end of another school day. It was strange for us to think of it being a normal day for them as well as imagine their lifestyle, a full day of work or school followed by a quick dip in the ocean.
That night, the sun set in as equally a spectacular fashion as the night before and we sat and watched as the sky was transformed into a canvas of colors. Wisps of clouds, which ran across it like brushstrokes, seemed to change color by the minute as the sun crept further into the horizon. As beautiful as it was, the colors, like the crowds, didn’t last long and began to fade as darkness set in and, with our enjoyably long day coming to an end as well, we grabbed a bite to eat before biking back to our guesthouse.
With our beach day now behind us and eager for a taste of Hoi An’s historic side, we decided to spend our third day exploring its old town, a cluster of centuries-old buildings sitting along the banks of the Thu Bon River. After a pleasant 30-minute walk from our guesthouse, we arrived at the outskirts of the town and entered it through the “new market,” which, like most other parts of the town, resembled nothing close to what you would describe as new, starting with the people who occupied it.
Old women, crouching under the shadow of their pyramid hats, lined the outer edges of the market, a rainbow of vegetables neatly contained in baskets spread out before them. Overhead, tourists and locals shuffled through each other in a manner that suggested that they were either unaware of the other’s existence or else didn’t care to acknowledge it. Baskets of chickens and ducks, slabs of meat, and even the occasional bucket of fish filled the spaces in between, leaving a hodgepodge of odors, none of which were in the least bit pleasant, lingering in the air. All of this, along with a temperature rapidly approaching 100 degrees, made for quite an uncomfortable atmosphere for 8:30 in the morning and we pushed through the market rather quickly, emerging into the immensely more charming lanes of the old town.
As we began exploring the town, the views stayed delightfully consistent. Two-storied houses and shops, stained in a mustard yellow, lined the lanes, their exteriors showing the effects of time with worn wooden panels hanging from their windows and long, streaky water marks running through their paint like age lines on a tree trunk. From their roofs, long locks of disheveled plants hung down, a mangled mane of vines and flowers exploding out of the clay tiles. Above the street, a web of wires and cables, from which dangled a colorful assortment of lanterns, stretched from one building to the next. The town looked every bit its age, but that was the point. When you stepped into it, you stepped back in time. Sure the interiors of the different buildings were redecorated and filled with souvenir trinkets and tailor shops, but if you could look past that, it wasn’t hard to imagine what life was like there centuries ago.
As we wandered further into the town, we began to notice one of the few unpleasant things about it: a complete lack of shade. This was particularly problematic because, at 9:00 in the morning, we were barely into our day and already the fully harnessed power of the sun was beating down on our heads. At first we tried to beat the heat, slogging through the streets like a couple of snails with a trail of sweat in our wake, but, after about a half hour of this, we decided there was no beating it and opted instead to go inside one of the many buildings bookending the lanes to escape the sun. Among the abundance of options, we chose the Fujian Assembly Hall to serve as our oasis and happily entered into its moderately cooler, but abundantly less sunny interior.
All around Hoi An, there were assembly halls like the one we were entering, all of which were dedicated to different nationalities. Like the town itself, they were remnants of the bygone trading days, when merchants from all corners of the globe would set their sails for Hoi An to do business with the Vietnamese. As we stood in the same halls that a Chinese person undoubtedly stood in centuries ago, we couldn’t help but think just how different our journeys had been to get there. What would they have thought of us getting into a big, metal tube thousands of miles away, shooting off into the sky, and landing safely near the town just a few hours later?
After touring the hall, we ventured back out into the streets refreshed and ready to continue our exploration of the town. For the rest of the day, we made sure to take frequent breaks in the shady interior of a shop, and, when we did happen to be out in the sun and feeling sorry for ourselves, we would just have to look around at the local women to instantly feel better about our circumstances.
Most of them, to our shock, looked dressed for a blizzard, wearing jeans, two or sometimes three sweaters zipped up to their necks, gloves, big hats, and even face masks. We had also seen it on the beach the day before and, curious as to why someone would put themselves through that, we inquired about it and were told that Vietnamese society prefers women to have light skin, which we thought was a rather ambitious beauty standard for a tropical country. In any sense, it put into perspective any sort of misery we were feeling due to the heat and kept our complaining to a minimum.
As the afternoon rolled around, we finally hit the edge of the town, marked by a 16th-century Japanese bridge, which looked in every sense the way a centuries-old structure should. The wood of its handrails, cracked and bare, had long since seen the refurbishing touch of a paintbrush, the porcelain that decorated its roof was either chipped or missing entirely, and the red paint covering its exterior was faded. But, like everything else in the town we had seen up to that point, it worked, which was the allure of Hoi An.
Despite being a very old place, it was neither in disrepair nor did you get the feeling of over-preservation as you walked through it. Everything fit so well together, even the different influences in architecture didn’t seem to clash. The faded red of the Japanese bridge didn’t look at all out of place in between the mustard yellow buildings, whose endless run along the lanes would be broken up by an occasional sky blue or teal storefront. It all worked, the age, the colors and we enjoyed every bit of it. As the day wore on though, we decided to leave the town for another day and head to the beach to take in another sunset.
We would pick up our fourth day in Hoi An where the third one had left off, near the ocean. For a majority of the day, we passed the time either in, around, or on the ocean. Our first stop of the day was Cham Island, which we would have to take a speedboat to get to. The ride there, while bumpy, was enjoyable and, after about twenty minutes, our feet were back on solid ground and our tour guide, who vastly overestimated his own English skills, began taking us around the island that he called home.
One of the consequences of going on a tour, and the reason why we don’t take them unless we absolutely have to, is that the guide decides what you see and how long you see it. Often times, their ideas about these two things are vastly different from our own and this time was no exception. We were there for beaches and snorkeling, but upon arriving we were instead paraded around the island’s interior, making a stop at the village temple, going by the schoolhouse and eventually going through the village itself, which had long known the advantages of tourism as the streets were practically lined with vendors selling treats and trinkets. We appreciated the tour for what it was though, being grateful for the small pieces of information we were able to gather about the island we were inhabiting for the day.
As we began walking back to the boat, our tour guide sought us out (we were the only English speakers on the tour) to tell us a joke he seemed particularly proud of. As we mentioned earlier, his English was elementary at best and, because of this, we were only able to understand a few words of it. We gathered that it had something to do with two chickens comparing their breasts with those of humans with the punchline having something to do with claws. Confused, we asked him to repeat it again and, after the third time, we nervously laughed in a manner that wasn’t fooling anyone. That was the last time he talked with us for the rest of the tour.
After getting back to the boat, our next stop was to go snorkeling, the thing we had been most looking forward to on the tour. Ever since we had gone Boracay two years earlier, we had been anticipating doing it again and were giddy to finally be doing so. As we pulled up to the snorkeling area, our tour guide plopped a bag of goggles and breathing tubes on the back of the boat and set us free to explore. As we dug through the bag of snorkeling gear we were appalled by the fact everything had some degree of mold growing on it and we pulled out the least affected pieces we could find and wearily strapped them on.
Our worries about the mold were soon forgotten though as we jumped into the water and peered beneath the surface of the ocean. Fish of all sizes and colors swam around each other, dipping in and out of the numerous holes and crevasses strewn across the sea floor. Coral stretched up towards the surface like mountains to the sky, swaying in the currents in a similar fashion as trees in the wind. Slivers of light shone down through the water, running over the entire scene like a system of veins. It was like dipping our faces into an entirely different world. Every now and then we would poke our heads out of the water and were amazed each time at how normal the surface looked, giving no hint at the entire ecosystem that existed just a few feet below it.
After about thirty minutes we were summoned back to the boat where we boarded and promptly set off towards the island’s main beach to have lunch, which consisted of a wildly inappropriate amount of food. Plate after plate after plate of meat and vegetables and fried snacks were laid out before us and, not wanting to waste any of it, we shamefully emptied the contents of each plate into our stomachs until there was nothing left. Uncomfortably full, we lumbered to the beach where we wasted away our bloated misery on a couple of shade-covered loungers until we were called to the boat to head back to Hoi An.
We got back to our guesthouse around 2:00 and immediately grabbed a couple of bikes to head to the beach to spend the rest of our day. We decided this time to try a less touristy beach than the others we had been to and were pleasantly surprised that the perks (a lounger and umbrella in exchange for ordering food or drinks) remained the same along with the added bonus of relative seclusion.
After arriving we noticed the sky darkening around us and became worried that an ensuing thunderstorm would force us back to the guesthouse earlier than we had wanted to. We expressed this concern to the woman working at the bar and were assured that the storm would only last a few moments. This would have been believable had the crisp blue skies stretching across the horizon not been overtaken by an expanse of dark, gray clouds stretching as far as the eye could see in a matter of minutes. Nonetheless, we decided to wait around and see what would happen, retreating to our loungers as the sky opened up. Sure enough, after about a ten minute wait the rain stopped and our view once again consisted of sunny blue skies. We should have known better given our experience with thunderstorms in the tropics: intense but short-lived.
The rest of the afternoon and evening was perfect with a mixture of cocktails, dips in the ocean, and lazing around on the beach. As the sun began to set, we hopped back on our bikes and began to look for a good restaurant along the beach, of which there were many. We chose one at random and spent the rest of the night picking at seafood and watching as the last remaining light was sucked under the mountains and the sky and ocean became synonymous in the black of night. With one more full day ahead of us, we headed back to our guesthouse to get some rest before our early rise the next day.
The agenda for our last full day in Hoi An was a long one and like most other days we had spent there, aimed to be a blend of both cultural and coastal activities, the first of which was a trip to the ancient Cham ruins of My Son (pronounced “mee-sohn”). We had read that walking around the ruins was akin to exploring the inside of an oven, which after 4 days in Vietnam was entirely believable. We also read that the sight is swarmed with people around midday once all of the tourist buses roll in. So, wanting to avoid both of these as much as possible, we woke up at 5 a.m., started up our motorbike and were on our way.
To find our way there we followed a surprisingly clear hand-drawn map from one of the workers at our guesthouse. Despite its clarity, the simplicity of it made us constantly question if we were going in the right direction or had missed our road. So, every few miles, we would stop and ask a local shopkeeper or passerby, who were always friendly even at 6:00 in the morning, how to get to My Son. At one point we were sure we had gotten ourselves completely lost and pulled over to ask a fruit vendor for directions and our gazes were shamefully guided to the giant sign right above our heads that read “My Son” with a big yellow arrow pointing us in the right direction. The motorbike couldn’t have taken us away faster.
You would think that feeling completely lost in the Vietnamese countryside while cruising around at 40 m.p.h. on a vehicle that you’ve only driven once before in your life in a country that has no observable traffic laws would be a bad thing, but it really wasn’t. In fact, it was one of our favorite things we did in Vietnam. The sense of adventure we got riding around and taking in vistas of expansive fields, mountainous skylines and small villages just beginning their day all while other motorists and even a truck with pig feet hanging out of it whizzed by us was incomparable to any other experience we’ve had in our travels. It was uniquely enjoyable and, after 35 miles and nearly an hour and a half on the road, it was almost disappointing as we rolled up to the gates of My Son and parked our bike.
At this point, it was still only 6:30 in the morning and the park had just opened. No other motorbikes were parked in the garage nor cars or buses in the parking lot. We seemingly were the first ones there, other than the workers who sleepily greeted us as we bought our tickets and made our way towards the ruins.
We entered the grounds through a dense expanse of trees, whose browns and greens dominated the scenery as far as the eye could see. After about ten minutes of meandering through this, we spotted a speck of orange off in the distance and began walking towards it. As we did, a half-standing tower slowly materialized before us and we soon found ourselves at the first of what would be eight different sights of ruins. Some were small, consisting of just one or two buildings like the one we were at now, others were sprawling, but each deserved at least some degree of contemplation of their role in the society that built them and what the lives of those people were like.
As we bounced around from sight to sight, we began to notice the relationship My Son had with the jungle around it. After centuries of existing side by side, it was almost as if the jungle had decided to reclaim what was once it’s own. Hills of grassy earth climbed up the walls of the different structures, almost making it look like they hadn’t been built but rather grew out of the earth like the trees around them. It was difficult to imagine one without the other.
Of the many incredible things we saw at My Son though, there was one unsettling one that was present in almost every sight that we visited. Giant craters, so big that one could easily confuse them for small hills, littered the landscape, remnants of the Vietnam War when the ruins were used as a hideout for the Viet Cong. Because of this, the sight was heavily bombed and many of the buildings that once stood were lost forever. It wasn’t until a My Son historian wrote a letter to the US President at the time, urging him to stop the attack, that the bombs finally ceased falling, but the damage had already been done and it was still very much visible fifty years later as we walked through the ruins. Maps and signs pointed to piles of bricks that were identified as once towering buildings and the ones that were still standing were often half-reduced to rubble. It was the first time we felt truly ashamed to be Americans.
Even with the bomb craters, it was very difficult to imagine a war taking place there or anywhere else in Vietnam for that matter. And this is for two people with admittedly very large imaginations. We would see black and white photos hung in shops of helicopters on the horizon and soldiers on the ground, but the Vietnam we saw and experienced was a world apart from this. We didn’t think about this too often though as there were many other things demanding our attention, all of which were much more pleasant than the thought of war.
After wandering around the ruins until about eleven o’clock, the valley they sat in began to fill with heat and tour groups and we decided that it was a good time to leave. So, we made our way back to our motorbike, hopped on, and began the return journey to Hoi An.
Apparently following a map backwards is much more difficult than forwards because the frequency with which we got completely lost (not just thinking we were lost) was exponentially higher than the journey to My Son. During one of these times, while we were knowingly driving in circles waiting for some familiar landmark to reveal itself, we noticed that our ride was getting increasingly bumpier despite the smooth road we were riding on. Panicked and determined to ignore the obvious, which was that we had a flat tire, we slowly crept along the road in hopes that the problem would fix itself (it didn’t). Just before losing all hope, we heard a shout from the opposite side of the road and looked over to find, to our relief, a man waving us in the direction of his home which doubled as a garage. After pulling up, he pointed us in the direction of some chairs, and, several minutes and $2.50 later, we were back on the road. Cheap and friendly are two things you can always count on in Southeast Asia.
After getting back, we made a quick run to the beach before hanging up our motorbike keys for good and heading into the old town on foot to catch their monthly celebration of the full moon. The town, like most everything else experienced in both the light of day and dark of night, took on an entirely different form. The yellows that dominated the city during the day now gave way to the red and white glow of lanterns hanging along and above the lanes which were significantly more crowded and filled with life now that the sun was no longer looming overhead.
As the sun slipped completely under the horizon, the moon, which oddly enough wasn’t full, showed up for its own party and we headed to the riverside where everyone in the town had begun to gravitate towards. After arriving, it didn’t take long for us to figure out how exactly they celebrated the festival.
All along the river, little girls and old women carrying lit candles in paper lanterns impressively maneuvered their way through the crowds asking people if they’d like to buy one. If you did, you were given a big hook that you could use to place the lantern in the river and make a wish. We bought two, happily placed them in the river and excitedly watched as they floated into a pile of other lanterns and were then rowed over by a boat. We weren’t sure how the rules applied, but we imagined that meant that our wishes would go unanswered. Destruction by boat wasn’t the worst fate though as some, after being placed in the water, proceeded to catch on fire and become reduced to smoldering piles of ashes. Hopefully no one wished for world peace.
Most of the lanterns did what they were meant to though and floated along the river unobstructed, illuminating the water in the same way as the stars do the sky. Despite the bustling crowds around us, it was an incredibly peaceful experience as we watched the different-colored lanterns slowly float off into the distance. It was so peaceful in fact, that, as we watched them, we were reminded of how tired we had grown and began the long walk back to our guesthouse.
Our last day in Hoi An wasn’t as much a day as it was a morning. We had an early flight leaving at 9:00 so, wanting to make the most of what little time we had left, we decided to get up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the sunrise. After rolling out of bed and suppressing the protests from our bodies about being up at such a time, we grabbed our bikes and cruised through the eerily quiet streets towards the beach. As we pulled up to it, we found a seat and watched the scenery unfold around us. If some pictures are worth a thousand words than this was a moment worth a thousand pictures. Hopefully three will do.
Once the sun had fully come up and the yellows and pinks and oranges that had occupied the sky just moments before turned to a uniform blue, we hopped back on our bikes to head back to the guesthouse in hopes of catching one last breakfast before our taxi arrived. To our delight, we made it back in plenty of time and, with a full belly of beef noodles, we sadly got into the taxi and bid farewell to Hoi An.