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Asia » Vietnam » South Central Coast » Quảng Nam » Hoi An
October 17th 2016
Published: September 30th 2017
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Bridge to An Hoi Peninsula ...Bridge to An Hoi Peninsula ...Bridge to An Hoi Peninsula ...

... not sure if this was a special occasion or just how it normally is, but Hoi An was beautifully lit up with lanterns.
Geo: 15.875, 108.336

There may not be a more picturesque location in Vietnam than Hoi An's Old Town - too bad it doesn't really feel like Vietnam! Good or bad, Hoi An's Old Town feels extremely foreign compared to our previous stops - it seems almost too perfect, too manufactured, to be the Vietnam we've come to know. If the World Showcase at Disney's Epcot Center had a Vietnamese pavilion, it would probably look and feel just like Hoi An. In fact, strolling around the riverfront, with its intricate lanterns beautifully lit up, evokes images of Disney's Electrical Parade. Hoi An is Disneyfied Vietnam - even though we never came across Minh Mouse, Donald Duc, or Nguyen the Pooh, it still should be called Disney-Nam!

Don't get me wrong, because there are some fantastic aspects of the Old Town - this is the first time we've strolled anywhere in Vietnam without fear of being run over by hordes of scooters, and the air was, dare I say - almost fresh and unpolluted? The buildings have been beautifully restored and converted into some of the most atmospheric bars, cafes, and shops you'll find in Vietnam, or anywhere else in the world, for that matter. This isn't the place to find Vietnam at its ramshackle, dingy, spartan, and authentic best - but is that really a bad thing?

Our feelings towards Hoi An are somewhat ambivalent because seemingly, for everything good here, there is something bad. Though we've seen some very touristy spots in Vietnam, it seems to be amplified tenfold here - so while may be comfortable with amenities, it's also incredibly annoying to try and enjoy them. The restaurant touts and vendors are by far the most aggressive and annoying in Vietnam, since there doesn't seem to be too many locals partaking in the Old Town's festive atmosphere. At times, what should be a relaxing stroll ends up feeling like you are running a gauntlet of people desperate to make a tourist buck.

Take Vy's Market, for example - it's set up like an Asian street food market, only sanitized for the tourist hordes. Though a bit gimmicky, it instantly drew us in with its sights, sounds, and delicious smells - the hostess smiled and asked if we'd like a table, but waved us in when we said we just wanted to take a look around. But then we were practically accosted by
Silk Tailors of Hoi An ...Silk Tailors of Hoi An ...Silk Tailors of Hoi An ...

... the town is overrun with these shops, with tourists going mad over their custom-made clothing.
another employee mere seconds later, when her response to us looking around wasn't quite as pleasant, telling us we couldn't look around, attempting to pressure us into taking a table. What's the point of setting up a restaurant as a street market, then not allow people to stroll around and admire the food? No thanks!

Hoi An is known as being one of Vietnam's culinary capitals, but we've found it to be a mixed bag, with experiences on opposite ends of the spectrum. Without fail, the local experiences have been superb, allowing us to sample some truly delightful cuisine. Unfortunately, equally without fail, the touristy takes on "authentic" Vietnamese food have been disappointing - case in point, a culinary tour that we did with The Last Great Taste of Hoi An. The tour was actually fantastic overall, leaving our bellies stuffed with tasty food, and our minds filled with interesting facts about Vietnamese cuisine.

The tour started out and ended well, as we began the day sampling all manner of unforgettable street food at the local market, and finished with a stop at a lovely restored traditional townhouse, trying out even more excellent food. But we quickly learned that Hoi An has two classes of restaurants, those for locals and those for tourists, at the halfway point of the tour, stopping at Dau Viet. Its relatively-upscale and comfortable interior suggested that it catered to the foreign demographic, which was immediately obvious with the food - it's not that it wasn't good, it's just that we knew it would've been better at a more local establishment.
It's common in Vietnam, perhaps more so in Hoi An, for people in the tourist industry to steer you towards places they think you would want to go, not where they would actually eat. These establishments usually end up being comfortable and pretty, but leave you wanting a better, more authentic meal. Because of this, we had one of our most disappointing meals of the trip at Thuan Y, despite its prime location overlooking the river. Between the uneven quality of the food and some truly bizarre service, it was an unforgettable dinner, but for all the wrong reasons.

Travel experiences don't always live up to the expectations - sometimes, the only solution for this problem is simply to embrace it. We didn't have much success finding good authentic food on our own - granted, we were
Best Dollar We Spent in Vietnam ...Best Dollar We Spent in Vietnam ...Best Dollar We Spent in Vietnam ...

... we could've hiked up to to Thuy Son, the largest of the Marble Mountains, but this slick elevator saved us a lot of sweat and effort.
here for only two nights, so a longer stay might have yielded different results - so for our last afternoon and evening, we completely abandoned the search for authenticity and embraced the quest for all foods inauthentically Vietnamese! French-style mousse cake influenced by Vietnamese tropical fruit flavours? Iced cappuccinos? Fusion pork belly sliders made with Asian-style steamed buns? Yes, to all of the above!

Hoi An is reminiscent of countless backpacker havens around the world that have hit that critical juncture, where so many first-world amenities are available, that the local culture is in danger of being entirely displaced. Sometimes a perfect-balance is struck, making for an incredible travel experience. But with Hoi An, particularly the Old Town, I wonder - has it already crossed the point of no return?


Additional photos below
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Big on Buddha ...Big on Buddha ...
Big on Buddha ...

... the Marble Mountains are all about Buddhist worship, with Buddhist statues and pagodas everywhere.
Unique Buddhist Imagery ...Unique Buddhist Imagery ...
Unique Buddhist Imagery ...

... the lurking monkey head was a bit unusual ...
Poor Buddha Getting His Nipples Pinched ...Poor Buddha Getting His Nipples Pinched ...
Poor Buddha Getting His Nipples Pinched ...

... although, the smile on his face seems to indicate that he's enjoying it!
Marble Mountains ...Marble Mountains ...
Marble Mountains ...

... not quite what we had expected, based upon the name - the surrounding villages lend a unique feel to the place, as it's not often that you see mountains in the midst of such development.
Regular Flooding ...Regular Flooding ...
Regular Flooding ...

... being right on the Thu Bon river, Hoi An's Old Town regularly floods during the rainy season. Check out the high water mark from 2009 - well over 6'! There are some beautiful traditional houses to visit in the Old Town - it's too bad that they all degrade into a high-pressure sales pitch at the end, peddling tourist trinkets.
GAM Museum ...GAM Museum ...
GAM Museum ...

... a unique jewelry shop/cafe, the interior makes for an extremely cool place to chill with a drink.
Cherry Blossom Cafe ...Cherry Blossom Cafe ...
Cherry Blossom Cafe ...

... some pho at Dalat airport, before our flight to Da Nang, en route to Hoi An - mediocre as expected, given that it's an airport location. The bottle of hoisin and sriracha in the background was also another giveaway as to the relative low quality of the food here - only non-Vietnamese would use those!!!
Phi Banh Mi ...Phi Banh Mi ...
Phi Banh Mi ...

... there are a number of highly-rated Vietnamese sub joints in Hoi An, but we weren't sure what to expect given that they were on Tripadvisor, with reviews written almost exclusively by foreigners. We ended up with a traditional sub with roasted pork, pork roll, pate, papaya, carrot, and herbs. The second sub was seemingly more of a fusion affair, with cheese, egg, pork, cucumber, papaya, carrots, herbs, and avocado - there was a bit too much going on with this one. The subs here were definitely a cut above those back in Calgary, particularly the crispy, airy bread. The accompanying sauce was also a bit more complex than the simple soy sauce normally used. Though the subs were great, we weren't blown away like we have been with other Vietnamese delicacies. It was cute that the owner brought us Vietnamese coffees from the shop next door - it's truly a collaborative economy in Vietnam, with everybody getting a small piece of the action.
Banh Mi Queen ...Banh Mi Queen ...
Banh Mi Queen ...

... the one issue with Vietnamese subs pretty much everywhere in the world, is that foreign pigs like us don't quite get full off just one - so we ended up at another famous local place, the Banh Mi Queen's shop. Compared to Phi Banh Mi, this one had more pate and a simpler seasoning - we can't say that we preferred one shop over the other, but we found that the Banh Mi Queen's individual components were tastier. She's known for making her own pates, cold cuts, and roasted pork.
Espresso Station ...Espresso Station ...
Espresso Station ...

... a hip little coffee shop - too bad the drinks didn't match the ambiance! The coconut coffee was superior at Cong Caphe - this version wasn't blended thoroughly, leaving large chunks of ice behind. Definitely not as smooth and elegant as Cong's drink. The egg coffee was also a little bitter.
Mochi Madness ...Mochi Madness ...
Mochi Madness ...

... we definitely didn't expect to come across a shop selling mochi in town, so had to stop for a couple! It seems to be part of a large chain - decent, but not great, but they were the first cream-filled versions we've had on this trip.


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