City of Lanterns

Days 6 + 7 – From my first few moments in Hoi An, I knew it would end up being a favorite stop on this trip. I’m usually pretty good at intuiting this kind of thing, and I wasn’t wrong. I could wax poetic about this city for an age and a day, but instead, I’ve boiled it down to the five most wonderful things about Hoi An:

#1 – The Lanterns
You’d think that a place marketed as the city of lanterns might in actuality be a bit cheesy, definitely way too touristy, and probably all hype and no payoff. You would be, dear friend, thoroughly incorrect. Our first day in Hoi An, we arrived fairly early and had ample time to head to the Ancient Town, a twenty-minute walk from our homestay. The streets (blissfully motorbike + scooter free), are charming enough in the light of day. French colonial mixed with Vietnamese-style facades fronted cafes, tailor shops, souvenir vendors, and other quirky merchants. Greenery and bright flowers hang like garlands, in some places forming natural arches. The lanterns, even unlit, add a special je ne sais quoi. But when dusk hit, that’s when the magic really happened. As the sun set, the lantern lights started coming on in bunches, like hidden fireflies peppering storefronts and walkways, terraces and rooftops. Hundreds and hundreds of them, more than you would ever have guessed in the light of day, every color, shape, and pattern imaginable. Tourists were everywhere too, there’s no denying that, but it honestly doesn’t matter. Hoi An is a fairy town, beautiful in daytime, but at night, that’s when the cloak comes off and you could see it in all its splendor. Intoxicating, enrapturing, incredible. Illuminated, it more than met my expectations. Anyone who skips this city in their tour of Vietnam is a damn fool. Just sayin’. Don’t be a damn fool. You must go to here.

#2 – The Tailors
Aside from the lanterns, Hoi An is famous for its master tailors. They can sew you a garment made to your precise measurements within 24 hours or less, and all for a very reasonable price. Karen in particular was highly looking forward to having a dress or two made.

Now, there are so many tailors to pick from that it can be overwhelming. (The sister had a bit of a shutdown at one point, almost leaving without commissioning a single piece). If you’ve any interest in having something made, I’d definitely recommend coming with a concrete plan of exactly what you want your outfit to look like. Also, choose your fabric very, very, very, very carefully. Even if they try to rush you to make a decision, do not let them. The fabric will make or break your piece.

But I digress. Karen, through her Pinterest obsession, had done a fair bit of research on the best tailors in town, and steered us to our first stop, Yaly. I asked for a two-piece, high-waisted skirt and crop top patterned ensemble, modeled after some Reformation looks. The sister went for a chic and classic pink linen dress. Karen’s vision panned out far better than mine. Yay for her (big yay, her dress is gorgeous and fits her not like a glove, but rather like a second skin.) Boo for me. This was our more expensive tailor stop (there were two), and all I’m left with is a great Mrs. Doubtfire Halloween Costume. I just need a white wig, some dowdy pink pumps, and I’ll look like everyone’s favorite nanny, albeit a mutton-dressed-as-lamb version.

Luckily for me, we also picked a random, much cheaper tailor as well. House of Ga Gag (BAAAHAHA), drew us in with eye-catching designs, but their salesowman, Nina, kept us coming back for more (and draining our wallets!). Whether I did a better job picking the look/outfit here, or their tailors just understood my vision/body better, this ended up being a much better fit for me (pun always intended). My new friend Nina kept encouraging me with her expert selling skills, and so I left with a few rompers, both dressy and casual, and a couple dresses that I may or may not be obsessed with. I also enjoyed Nina, despite her pushiness, because she didn’t just go with whatever I said to churn out more outfits/money. She pushed back, and gave her honest (sometimes too honest) opinion on what would work or what wouldn’t. I hope, one day, in my big dreamy dreams, that I can come back with a big ‘ole budget, and find Nina, and build myself an entire outfit. #frivolousfancies

All-in-all the tailor experience was a giant win. Depending on where you go, you pay between $20 to $100+, but the fit is superb. And how often do you have the opportunity to commission clothing that hugs your every curve?

#3 – The Coffee
I didn’t do much research before coming here (just ask my sis who did 99.99% of the planning for this trip), so I had no clue that Vietnam was going to turn out to be the coffee mecca that it is. In Hoi An’s ancient town, you can hardly go half a block before hitting another coffee shop (and no Starbucks, HUZZAH!). Sure, some are clearly touristy, with bloated prices and so-so brews. But many of them are excellent, boasting rooftop views of the city and, lightning fast WiFi (a pro or a con depending on your view of things).

Unusual caffeinated fare on the menu includes:

  • Egg Coffee—Egg yolk beat with sugar and coffee. Sound disgusting? You couldn’t be more wrong.
  • Dark Magic—double shot of espresso brewed in cold steamed milk (to remove some of the bitterness, or so they said.) Deliciousness aside, I mean, how can you not love a drink called dark magic?
  • Ice Cube Coffee—Coffee frozen into cubes, which you then pour a condensed milk, regular milk, cinnamon mixture over. GNOMS.

#4 – The Food, but specifically Minh Hien Restaurant
There have been times when Google Reviews and Trip Advisor have disappointed, but in this case, on our very first night, great reviews guided us to a land of scrumptiousness. So much so, that this restaurant ended up being one of our favorites thus far. A family-run vegetarian joint, we regretted not eating most of our meals at Minh Hien, the food was that good. It’s definitely a must for anyone who visits the area, vegetarian or not. Some highlights include a tamarind eggplant, Hoi An crispy pancake rolled in rice paper, and this bizarre cucumber dish smothered in a spicy and ever-so-slightly sweet sauce. They also served up fresh beer for 5,000 VND, roughly $0.22. The alcohol content is around two percent, so you can down many a mug of the compulsively drinkable drought.

#5 – The Charm of the Ancient Town

All of the things above are draws in and of themselves, but all together, nestled within the picturesque streets of the Ancient Town, Hoi An is a powerful contender for my favorite stop on this tour-de-Vietnam. The transformation that happens at dusk is nothing short of enchanting, like walking in a lush green forest that of a sudden turns into a twinkling fairyland. Though it’s drowning in tourists, something that typically earns an immediate red card from this agoraphobic writer, you’re so glamoured by the enchantment that is this town that crowds be damned, it’s all just too lovely. The vendors are pushy, but it don’t matter. The prices are steeper than elsewhere, but what the heck. The crowds are thick, but the stars in your eyes blur all the chaos.

During our three day stay, we took a short afternoon trip to the nearby beach. We walked the night market, and feasted on banana crepes and sweet potato street eats. On our second night, we commissioned a woman manning a small wooden boat to row us down the river that wends through the town. We did the touristy thang, and bought paper lanterns which we sent down the river along with a silent wish. I can’t tell you what that wish was, but I’ll tell you what I wish it’d been: that sometime in the not too far off future, I can return to wander once more in this glowing city of lanterns.

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