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Published: September 30th 2017
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 ...
... 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 ...
... 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?
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