Hội An is a small town that sits on the Thu Bồn River, a few miles inland from the South China Sea. A warren of old buildings layered in crumbling yellow paint, Hội An comes alive at night, when the streets are illuminated by thousands of silk lanterns.
Now a Unesco world heritage site, Hội An used to be one of Vietnam’s main trading ports with the Japanese and Chinese. In the 18th Century, the river started to silt up, and trading moved to other more suitable ports like the nearby Da Nang. As a result Hội An has remained largely intact, avoiding destruction in the war, and over-development like much of the rest of the coast. The result is a wonderfully museum-like warren of streets where houses and shops have remained the same for hundreds of years.
The local authority (Hội An Parish Council or similar) have decreed that every shop, restaurant, bar and hotel must display a number of lanterns at the door, and the local businesses have really got into it. Thousands and thousands of lanterns adorn the town’s streets, and at night, Hội An turns into a galaxy of red, yellow, orange and white lights. Even the river is decorated with hundreds of little floating lanterns with candles aboard. It is magnificent and beautiful and probably the best bylaw I’ve ever come across. Certainly beats ‘no cycling on the pavement’.
Every night, a few bars along the water sell ‘bia hơi’ a low-strength draught beer which is brewed and delivered daily. We had glass after glass of cold beer, which is extremely drinkable in the warm Vietnamese evenings. When we got the bill, it worked out at 16p a glass; ridiculously good value.
One night in Hội An, after spending almost a whole pound(!) on beer, we decided to go in one of the little boats on the river. We were both given a little paper lantern and a candle, so donned our life jackets and jumped in the boat. The elderly man rowing looked pretty past it, and we started to feel a little guilty for not helping, but when we took up a paddle it didn’t seem to make any real difference. Although the river was quite busy with other boats, it was beautiful to be floating among the little paper lanterns which bobbed about on the river.
Each region of Vietnam has its local cuisine, and Hội An is no different. A farm on the edge of town means that fresh herbs are in abundance. They are delivered to the market and large restaurants every few hours, meaning that the food is always crisp and flavoursome.
We went to a different place for every meal, trying to sample everything that Hội An had to offer. One of the highlights was Bale Well. Entering the courtyard, we walked past rows of grills balanced over small oil drums, upon which a group of elderly women deftly turned skewers of chicken. The only item on the menu is bánh xèo: crispy, lacy egg pancakes, stir fried vegetables, prawn spring rolls, barbecue chicken and a handful of fresh crunchy herbs. You clumsily assemble everything into a rice paper wrap, then dunk it in a perfectly spiced chilli dipping sauce. Every bite was aromatic and acidic, with bursts of crunchy flavour from the fresh mint, basil and lemongrass. It was great.
Many of the signs of Hội An’s trading past are visible to this day. One of the main tourist attractions is the Japanese Covered Bridge, an ornate bridge which was formerly used for merchants in the 1800s. Dotted throughout the town are former merchant houses, including Tan Ky House, which we went into have a look around and to see how they lived in days gone by. Interestingly (and potentially as a result of the silt; I’m no expert), the Thu Bồn River now routinely floods the entire town. The ropes and pulleys that originally lifted goods are now used to haul the furniture into the loft every time water levels rise.
We were staying in the Little Hội An Boutique Hotel and Spa, a lovely hotel a short walk from the old town. A woman outside was offering bikes for hire, so on our last day in Hội An we took a couple of bikes and went off in search of An Bang, the nearest beach. It was about a 30-minute ride, and when we reached the sand, we parked our bikes, had an iced coffee, then spent a relaxing afternoon on the sand, playing in the sea, and eating seafood in the beach bar.
On the way back, we took a scenic route, and were cycling through rice paddies and countryside when we saw a bar at the side of the road with a few groups of locals sitting around tables in the shade. It was a hot day, so seemed the perfect time to stop for a drink. We leaned our bikes against the wall and wandered in, by now used to people looking at us wherever we went. As we were trying to work out where to order a drink, a young girl came over and explained in very minimal English that it was, in fact, ‘no bar, home’.
Turns out we’d accidentally crashed a house party. We sheepishly got back on our bikes and continued in search of an actual bar.
We stayed at: Little Hội An Boutique Hotel and Spa (littlehoiangroup.com/little-hoi-an)
We ate the best bánh xèo at: Bale Well (lonelyplanet.com)
We soaked up some culture at: Tan Ky House (vietnamtourism.com)