Most of Vietnam might be moving at breakneck speed, but Hoi An is in a different gear, as Donald Berkshire discovers.
On the 14th day of every lunar month in Hoi An, a wish borne on a candle-lit lantern and launched down the Thu Bon River will cost you US$1 – and perhaps a bruise or two as you jostle with the masses for a piece of cut-price spirituality.
It’s all good-natured chaos during Full Moon Lantern Festival on the Cau An Hoi bridge, with dozens of thin, wooden poles whirling overhead before gently laying the flickering paper baskets on the water to bob away with the current, bumping up against the hopes and dreams of a thousand pilgrims under a full moon.
World Heritage-listed Hoi An, about halfway up Vietnam’s east coast, has been a magnet for traders and fortune-seekers for 2,000 years, a prosperous little river town where capitalism and religion have long gone hand-in-hand.
Bargaining at local markets is standard, but some things are sacred as one heavy-set German man wearing a money-belt and a middle-aged paunch discovers when he seeks a “sensible price” for his lantern.
“No, mister; no half-price wish,” is the stern reply from a teenage girl toting a basket of candles. “You want it to only come half true?”
The big candle launch follows a town-wide blackout as cafés, restaurants and businesses switch off their lights and raise coloured paper lanterns outside their doors. The locals apologise, somewhat unnecessarily, for the brief gloom before one of Southeast Asia’s most magical spectacles.
A full moon in Thailand or Bali can mean ear-shredding electronic beats and mobs of messy backpackers tearing up a beach, but in Hoi An the gatherings are civilised, and at temples and halls the devout pray for their ancestors or take in theatre and traditional dance.
Laid-back bars in the town centre shut around midnight and revellers looking to kick on are politely pointed to a divey café over the river that stumbles on until about 2am.
After a few exhausting days of shopping and bar-hopping in freewheeling Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still call it, Hoi An offers the perfect escape to unwind, or nurse a serious hangover.
Where Saigon – like every city in Vietnam – has sold its soul to the motorbike, motorised transport is banned in the centre of Hoi An, allowing care-free detours into boutiques, spa emporiums and former residences of Chinese and Japanese merchants without fear of being skittled by a moped.
Hoi An’s a treasure trove of antiquities, but the riverside marketplace a stroll down from the famous Japanese covered bridge is the place for “antique-fied” knick-knacks that make great gifts. Mostly offered for less than US$20, they’re often bargained down to half the amount.
There is little artifice about the food market, however, where older residents don conical hats and sell mountains of fruit and devotional flowers for temple visits.
Hoi An’s golden age as a centre of commerce came crashing to a halt at the end of the 18th century, with the downfall of a trade-friendly dynasty and the rise of the new concession port for French interests at Da Nang, a half-hour drive up the coastal highway. The river also silted up to stifle traffic, but the sudden isolation was a blessing in disguise, allowing the town to while away the next 200 years in obscurity as colonialism and war changed the country irrevocably.
The tradition of artisanship survives, and though smart cafés and restaurants with fusion food and zippy Wi-Fi access abound, every other building appears to sustain a textile or ceramics business.
Two smart shirts and three pairs of shorts, all tailored, set me back US$100 in the covered market. God knows how little they could have been had I bothered to seriously bargain.
Lazy afternoons float by in riverside cafés, with views of straw-roofed sampan boats and palm trees made foggy by the local tap beer, but the restless can take a short bike ride to Cua Dai beach, a lovely stretch of sand that extends north all the way to booming Da Nang.
The coast between Hoi An and Da Nang boasts a string of classy resorts and championship golf courses, but it’s no epicentre of partying like Nha Trang, further south.
Unlike elsewhere, development has been slow and sustainable in Hoi An, and the floating lanterns that bob downriver bear at least one wish that it remains that way.
Access to Hoi An is from Da Nang, a 30-minute cab-ride from the airport. Da Nang is a one-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City with Vietnam Airlines or one of any number of budget carriers that offer great value return tickets for less than US$100. Singapore is well connected to Ho Chi Minh City by Vietnam Airlines and Singapore Airlines.
Where to stay
Hotel Pullman Saigon Centre
A Vietnam holiday invariably kicks off with a shopping spree in Saigon, and the very new Hotel Pullman Saigon Centre is an excellent choice for a short or longer stay in the country’s booming commercial hub. About a 10-minute stroll from the famous Ben Thanh market, the Pullman is a sleeker, more modern competitor to the city’s fustier five-star properties, many in sore need of renovation. Pulling off the delicate balance between luxury and contemporary design, the Pullman’s rooms are generous in size and feature cutting-edge toys including TVs equipped with software that allows guests to stream media from their smartphones. Cobalt, the restaurant and bar located on the 30th and 31st floors, is worth a visit in its own right, offering great views of the city at cocktail hour and a peek at Saigon’s beautiful people later in the evening.
The Nam Hai, Hoi An
It’s hard not to shed a tear when you the exit this extraordinary property for the last time on your holiday. Perched on a white, sandy beach about a 10-minute shuttle from Hoi An, The Nam Hai boasts a trophy cabinet crammed with international travel awards, and the staff appear hungry for more, offering top-notch service, food and facilities. The 100 villas of varying size are dotted around 35 hectares of tropical gardens, their design a luxurious nod to traditional Vietnamese homes with raised beds, ornate wooden carvings and cathedral ceilings.
Staff happily show off the property’s sprawling organic garden where trees strain with fruit and the freshest produce ends up on your dinner plate. The Nam Hai’s spa is astonishing, too, with treatment rooms floating like a string of pearls over a pond of lotus flowers, lily pads and sleepy carp.
This story first appeared in Expat Living’s May 2015 issue.
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