Or, I spent most of a week walking and I loved every minute of it.
I believe in love at first sight – at least in the context of places. I fell in love with Jomalig Island while still on the boat before I even set foot on it. As I did with the bustling streets of Binondo and the entirety of Camiguin Island.
That was not the case for Hoi An.
I put the blame entirely on the nine-hour motorcycle trip from Quy Nhon.
To be fair, it wasn’t all that bad. There were a lot of really, really good roadside food carts along the way and it was definitely a lot more fun that taking the train.
But nine hours is nine hours. By the time I got to the hostel I just wanted to shower it off and sleep. So, my first day in Hoi An was spent hanging out by the pool at the hostel, and then asleep by 9pm.
Discovering the wonder of doing nothing
One of the reasons I chose Hoi An is because I read that it has a beach. When I woke up at 6am on my second day there, I knew that the first thing I would do is check it out.
Armed with sunglasses, water, and sunblock, I walked to the direction I was pointed toward by the friendly people at hostel reception.
It was a long walk of 2 kilometres. I love walking so I didn’t mind (okay, I need to not mind because I don’t know how to ride a bicycle. It’s either walk or book an Uber and I’m not gonna do that).
Besides, it was worth it. So, worth it.
White sand. Cold water. Exactly what I wanted.
Every morning, I would wake up at 6am, have breakfast, then walk to the beach where I would laze the morning away. I usually stay there until 9am or 10am, before taking the walk back to wash up in the hostel and get ready for whatever else I will do the rest of the day.
Enlightenment is not always instant. Realisations aren’t always these a-ha moments you see in the movies. Oftentimes, it happens over a series of events or actions.
In my case, it’s in the mornings I spent on the beach, sandwiched in 2-kilometre walks.
I love that little morning routine I had because it allowed me to think. It also allowed me to not think and that’s just as important.
I spent those mornings by myself, basking in the sound of waves and brisk ocean winds, taking in the sun – sometimes thinking, sometimes not – and it was exactly what the doctor ordered to give an exhausted heart some breathing room.
It has been a whirlwind of a few years and there are some things I needed to work out in my head. The time I spent there gave me the time and space to do just that. A place where no one knows me and where I don’t need to do anything but keep myself alive? Perfect.
The kind of commercialism I support
If my mornings were spent on the beach, afternoons and evenings were spent in the Hoi An Old Town.
The Old Town is a walking town. I enjoyed my walks immensely even though it’s full of tourists (besides, I’m one of the tourists). Plus, I ate my way through the town.
My love for street food knows no bounds.
The streets are decorated with lanterns, and the buildings and narrow streets really give off that old world vibe that I like.
The Old Town is pretty. It is also very commercialised. Which of course, it will be. If you’re a place teeming with tourists, you’d want to take advantage of that.
There were shops everywhere. But while you see a lot of shops that carry your standard Asian market fare, what’s notable about Hoi An is the number of shops where you can get tailored clothes.
Really good quality tailored clothes.
I decided (on my last day there – please don’t do what I did) to get a cocktail dress tailored. I walked in, and one of the ladies brought me inside, gave me a drink, and then handed me a binder where I could point out which kind of neckline, hemline, etc. I wanted. They have a lot.
Then we proceeded to choose the fabric. And then take the measurements. We discussed a bit the possibility of them sending it to me in Hue or Ho Chi Minh if they can’t get it done by the time I leave Hoi An the next day at noon, then they asked me to come back at 8pm (it was 11am) for a fitting.
See, when I think fitting, I figured I would be fitting the lining. But when I got there, it was the whole dress. And I only did the fitting so they could confirm the lengths and hemlines. Then they asked me to come back at 10am the following day to pick it up.
Very good quality. Wonderful workmanship. Great customer service. Work of art, really. And very speedy. All for 1.8 Million VND (that’s about 96 USD or 3,000 PHP).
Then there’s the other kind of art- the kind you display in your home. Hoi An is bursting with it.
And those trinket shops I mentioned generally also sell art. I’ve spent a lot of time browsing through the works of their local artists.
I like to think that art is such an inseparable aspect to the identity of the people of Hoi An. From how they decorate their spaces to the work of their hands, the whole place just breathes it.
And I guess more than anything that’s why I’m drawn to Hoi An. It is unapologetically touristy, but you won’t mind because they wear it so well.
Life is hard, but wishes only cost 2000 VND
Evenings and nights in Hoi An Old Town have so much character. I’ve taken to sitting along the banks of Thu Bon river, watching the boats and the paper lanterns float along it.
On the first night I did, I counted no less than 5 boats carrying couples dressed in wedding outfits getting photographed with the backdrop of the sunset.
There are always a lot of people there at night. The riverside is lined with restaurants and the walkways along the river become the stage of various performers; tourists come in droves.
In a way, all of the Old Town’s roads lead to the river.
I have no interest in dining at the restaurants. Come to think of it, the only time I dined in a “proper” restaurant the whole time I was in Vietnam was that one time in Ho Chi Minh. It’s always sidestreet carts or eateries.
So, while most people flock to the restaurants at the riverside, I picked out a spot where I can rest and people-watch before heading back to the hostel.
On my third night there, one of the old ladies who sell paper floating lanterns approached me with the last of her lanterns.
“Wish,” she said, lighting the candle inside. I thought okay, sure, not that you gave me a choice. So, I took the lantern and placed it on the pole they use to lower it to the river.
“Wish,” she said, pointing at the lantern. “Wish, con gai.”
I asked her, with difficulty, if wishes made on the river do come true.
“Tuy ban,” she said.
Up to you, it means based on all the online translations I checked.
It’s up to you. And isn’t that just the way it should be?
Sometimes we get what we ask for, sometimes we don’t. It may be luck, it’s almost always privilege, but a part of what makes our wishes come true depend on how much we’re willing to work for it.
We go through life and do the best that we can with what we have. I’ve found myself lucky enough to have as many fresh starts as I needed and for that I am grateful.
I have wished for many things. I still wish for many things. It’s free, after all (except when you do it via river lantern in Hoi An in 2018, then it costs 2,000 VND). And one of the best feelings in the world is having made my own wishes come true.
A practical demonstration on how to be a queen
As much as I wanted to try a lot of many things, I still fall to the habit of going back to where I’ve found gold.
And gold I did find in this small nondescript cafe tucked somewhere in Old Town. It was accidental, when I found it on my first day exploring; it was noon and it was so damn hot that when I noticed that there’s actually a cafe behind a bunch of plants, I just walked in.
Turns out, they serve a great Mi Quang. I won’t comment on the coffee because this is Vietnam and I have this bias that they have great coffee anywhere in the country.
It’s owned by an old lady who has no patience for overstaying tourists or over-photographing couples. In the two times I lunched and the three times I had afternoon coffee there, I saw her kick out space hogs twice and turn away loud groups of people 5 times.
And by the Goddess, isn’t that something we should aspire to be? A woman who does as she pleases, when she pleases, and does not give one ounce of a fuck what you think about her.
From running a small cafe the way you want to making your own decisions about your life or family or career, it’s best to be the kind of person who achieves the milestones she wants when she wants it.
No letting society pressure you into doing things based on their prescribed timeline. No letting yourself get emotionally blackmailed into wanting children if you don’t. No letting yourself feel like you have to apologise for taking up space.
Take up space. And do whatever you damn well please with it. And one day, you may end up unwittingly inspiring someone.
(Also, I am very glad to not have gotten on her bad side)
A vacation within a vacation
As I was packing up – with difficulty because of the stuff I bought, can I just say – I realised that the past few days have been the most relaxed I have been.
When I think of Hoi An, I think of Greek Mythology’s Ogygia, minus Calpyso.
At least, Ogygia in the context of time meaning nothing, where my days look the same. I usually feel like I’m missing out when I don’t get to experience many things. But this time, I didn’t mind. And it’s probably because Hoi An is already an experience by itself.
And while I didn’t fall in love at first sight with Hoi An, I did for all the sights after that. I loved every minute I spent there, and I look forward to doing it all over again in the future.
Up next: Hue.