Experiencing Hoi An is much like stumbling upon a precious jewel box that belonged to dynasties of different origins. The town houses ancient Chinese homes, distinct Japanese architecture and boutique French facades. Hoi An’s history is a beautiful paradox. I spent there 5 weeks and find it only appropriate to share with you the effect of the city on my 5 senses.
See how she leans her cheek upon her hand.
O, that I were a glove upon that hand
That I might touch that cheek!
― William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Occasionally, her fingertips touch your skin. They are so small; it is as if they belong to a child. Your eyes are closed; arms spread open but you are not ready to fly. Not yet. A sweat drop makes its way down your face but before it reaches the tip of your nose, the fan in the room has swiftly changed its direction towards you and blows it away.
“Stand easy and breathe”, she says, as she wraps the measurement tape around your chest. “Would you like it slim-fit or relaxed?”
“Slim-fit”, you say. If it is tailor-made then it has to be slim-fit, sculpturing those ‘to-brag-about’ features of yours.
You are in one of the many tailor shops of Hoi An. If I were to to pick one word to describe this place, it’d go for ‘craft’. Hoi An thrives on artisan shops that offer tailor-made products at almost unbelievably reasonable prices. You’d be even more suspicious about the quality of the outcome after the tailor assures you that your garment will be ready in 2 days. And I am not talking a simple skirt here. It is custom-made shoes, leather jackets, and pretty much anything you show on your smart phone.
Pick a model and then let your fingertips caress the variety of fabrics. They will magically rest upon the chosen one and in no time you will have what you wished for. The relation between quality and price here has little to do with international high-end branding strategies, so you will be happy, even delighted, with the outcome.
If you wish to experience craftsmanship on a deeper level, you can join one of the many workshops offered, and put your skills to the test of precision. I went for the leather bookbinding and loved it. There is just one thing that can surpass the delight from your ink soaking on the pages of a handmade book; that of soaking on a book handmade by you.
The skin, enveloped in moist and sealed with the kiss of heat, takes a break at dusk by the merciful caress of the river breeze. The touch of Hoi An.
You can hardly remember it, yet when exposed to a certain scent, it can take you on a journey back in time, as you recall the memory in rich details.
I open my eyes and take my first conscious breath for the day. The air in the room is crisp and cool.
Another breath fills my nostrils with the fine aroma of the dripping coffee.
I step outside the premises of the air-conditioned house for a morning run and enter another atmosphere, where breathing is anything but indulging.
By the time I am done with the run, the alleys of Hoi An are full of trolleys, offering goodies not only for the gustatory senses. I feel like in one of those cartoons where the character follows the traces of aroma to the source. Yes, it smells like fresh baguettes! (Asia? Baguettes? I’ll tell you in a bit about that.)
If you are inconsiderate, which sometimes I am, you could smell your skin burning under the sun, while cycling your way to where you could’ve gone earlier or later. Hmm… priorities.
The friction between my bicycle’s wheels and the heated asphalt cease. I park on the outskirts of the local market. The left-hand alley leads me through the colourful stalls filled with veggies and fruits. The air is filled with the scents of fragrant herbs and spices. I circle around and come out of the market, following the parallel alley. It smells like fresh fish. The scent plays games with my mind. I imagine stories about ships, fisherman, lost compasses and guiding winds.
By the river, the fragrance of time standing still is as if bottled in the Old Town of Hoi An. A dash of leather scent accompanies the mood of the evening.
As I make my way home, scented sticks thicken the already dense air. It feels like a blanket, covering the evening. One that suggests it is time to “Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.”
“The sounds of silence are a dim recollection now, like mystery, privacy and paying attention to one thing — or one person — at a time.” – Maureen Dowd
Hoi An is a quiet place sliced by the sound of fans. The sound of silence is disturbed by random waves that merge with the golden sand of the beach. But there are barely any waves. The sea here is even. Much like the air. It is still and dense with heat. There is, of course, the inevitable sound of the horn which is the best traffic cop you can get. In time, you get used to all the ‘beep-ing’, you even do it yourself. The echo of the horn no longer bothers you; it rather merges with the calmness of the town.
Similar to most Asian cities, people here worship the karaoke and sing. They sing out loud and with no shame. They do not sing well, I tell you, but they sing. You can’t blame them. There is no better soundtrack to your life, than the one coming from your heart… and throat.
Or is there? The most beautiful sound to me in Hoi An is the one coming out of the street speakers in the old part of the town. The violin concerto is the finest soundtrack to an evening stroll. It is cheesy and romantic. And, yes, I love it! As you pass by the facades of the old buildings, you can feel the music notes guiding you through a magical experience.
My second best sound is that of the wheels of my bicycle rolling on the not-yet-heated road, just before dawn, as I pass by the fields of herbs. I can hear the them whispering secrets. I cannot say more, those are secrets, so shhhh. To me, Hoi An is the sound of cry when my 3-year-old housemate Ben wakes up; the evening street guitar and songs of my neighbours; and the awkward laugh of the locals every time we try to understand each other using the magnificence of body language and the advantages of technology.
Say the name…
HộiAn (會安) translates as “peaceful meeting place”. In English and other European languages, the town was known historically as Faifo. This word is derived from Vietnamese Hội An phố (the town of Hội An), which was shortened to “Hoi-pho”, and then to “Faifo”.
I wake up. Coffee is in order. Black, white, coconut or egg, the coffee here is strong and sweet. I keep thinking if I overdo with white coffee (it has condensed milk in it), I will end up with black teeth. But it is not so much the flavour I favour, it is about the delightful aftertaste that remains. Hoi An’s aftertaste is sweet—not only because of that condensed milk, but because of its cuteness.
Indulging on the gustatory senses here is not only easy but also good for you (excluding the condensed milk). Vietnamese cuisine is known to be one of the healthiest in the world. It tastes like lemongrass, soy sauce, chilli, ginger, coriander and mint; like fresh fruits and vegetables. The food, of course, is based on noodles and rice, but the one thing that differentiates Vietnam from all other Asian countries is the baguette. Yes, there are as many bakeries here as freckles on Pippi Longstocking’s face. The bánh mì, which is a crusty baguette sandwich filled with anything from pork to eggs, costs less than a dollar and is a go-to meal.
While I could speak of all the dishes you may enjoy, there is another taste that flavours this city—the good taste. The taste of simplicity, sophistication and… well, sweet condensed milk.
No doubt, the most emblematic part of Hoi An is the old town. In 1999, UNESCO recognised this historic district as a World Heritage Site for a reason. It holds its original street plan and many of its original buildings, making out of it a living museum. Paradoxically, it is a historical misfortune that gave Hoi An the opportunity to become such a jewel.
Founded by a Nguyen lord in 1595, the city thrived as a trading port in times of war. Foreign colonies began to shape, as traders left behind their representatives, with dominating Japanese and Chinese’s presence. In the 18th century, when the French put their hands on trading rights, Da Nang (the nearby city) became the hot spot, leaving Hoi An underdeveloped and a virgin to modernisation for 200 years. A fantastic example of what is it that we win, when we lose.
Walking into the yellow Old Town of Hoi An is like stepping inside a wardrobe which is, in fact, a gateway to Narnia. At night, colourful lanterns twinkle through the darkness and add to the enchanting aura of this place. While you can find numerous listicles with the must-sees of the city, none of them mentions one place I found particularly interesting—the cemetery. No, this is not my dark-twisted humour. Because Vietnamese believe that there is a parallel life after death, their cemeteries are more than just a field of mushroom-like gravestones. They are homes for those in the other dimension. Far from creepy, the cemetery of Hoi An intrigues with its architectural design as a sheet of peaceful haze lingers upon it.
More than just the emblematic architecture of the yellow old town and its crafts, Hoi An is its people. The locals welcome the dawn wide awake and active. I was so motivated to see how people of all age are running, dancing or exercising very early in the morning (4-5 a.m.). After lunch, when the heat is unbearable, you will see local families enjoying a siesta nap on the floor in the corridor of their houses. The whole family, together, napping on the floor – a priceless sight. As daylight gives way to dusk, life on the streets blossoms. The kids play, while the elder sit in their miniature chairs on the sidewalk – enjoying a coffee, or a beer; playing Chinese chess or cards.
Beyond the stillness and the heat, life keeps rolling here… rolling by the river, by the sea, on those bicycles… rolling by the fields of rice and herbs. Hoi An is blue, yellow and green. It is like nothing else I’ve ever seen.
The 6th sense, I’ve put in a treasure box.
P.S. I am fascinated how the city supports those deprived by some of those senses. Places like Reaching Out Tea House offer jobs to those who are deaf and/or mute. There is a place offering massages done by those deprived from sight. Hoi An is a place where people support each other. What more can you ask from a place?