The 16-hour overnight train ride to Da Nang (en route to Hoi An), was not bad. We managed to get a few hours of sleep so we were ready to face our first day in the historic city. Hoi An first popped on our radar several weeks ago as a result of meeting a lovely lady in Turkey. She had visited Vietnam a few times in the recent past and spoke very passionately about the country and of course Hoi An.
After arriving at the hotel, we made our way into the heart of old town and absorbed its high-powered charm. Hoi An was an important international trading port back in the 17th century and saw many influences of which some still exist today. Its location on the Thu Bon river paired with remarkable French colonial architecture and colorful Chinese temples exposed Hoi An’s true colors of an immortally romantic city. It’s a place where imagination collides with reality, a place that inspires dreams. It’s also a place of booming commerce with shops lining every single street – catering to tourists, Hoi An is the country’s top place for custom-made clothing/shoes. And so walking around town also meant resisting the incessant solicitations from vendors to simply “please buy something”. For dinner we happened upon Hai Cafe, a recommendation suggested in our guidebook which turned out fantastic. The fresh spring rolls and beef roll-ups spoiled us even more!
For the next day we had arranged an 8am pick-up (private car), for a trip to My Son to visit the Champa Hindu Temple ruins. Constructed between the 4th – 13th centuries, the temple complex was (and still is), regarded as engineering marvel (as no mortar was utilized). The 1-hour drive through the countryside painted a clear picture of rural life. At times the landscape seemed to stretch indefinitely from rice field to rice field, some occasionally tended to by lonely farmers sporting traditional conical straw hats. Although accompanied by heavy rain for the entire drive, upon our arrival at Champa luckily only light drizzle stayed with us during our visit. Accessible only by footpath, the red brick temples emerged from the misty jungle making for an incredible sight and surrounding. It was one of those “Indiana Jones” moments of uncovering a hidden gem. Still alive today were some of the delicate details adorning the temples – sculptures of various deities, spiritual characters, priests, etc. We had fun identifying them and putting Brigitte’s camera to work.
The rest of our day was mellow due to the rain and easy going feel of Hoi An. It’s the kind of place where an afternoon siesta would seem only natural. Our only other outing was in the evening to grab dinner in the old part of town.
The following day was no different in terms of the forecast – more rain and cloudy skies. But on the agenda was the cooking class we had signed up for during our dinner at Hai Cafe. The class started out with a trip to the market where we were introduced to numerous exotic vegetables and fruit. Then came the spice and the fish part of the market. Now I know what a pile of live eels in a medium size bowl look like. The vibe of the entire place was incredible with each vendor neatly tucked behind his/her counter either preparing something or trying to lure in customers. From there we enjoyed a boat ride up the Thu Bon river to the cooking class complex. We had a solid group on hand with a number of Australians comprising the majority. This was great as it helped us gather intel on our upcoming trip to the lone continent. But more importantly we started cooking in high gear with some fresh spring rolls, a shrimp/pork pancake and an eggplant/veggie concoction prepared in a clay pot. Most interesting was the rice paper, an integral part of Vietnamese cuisine. To make it is a simple yet patient process requiring 7+ hours. We bypassed this part thankfully (it had already been done for us), and skipped to steaming it turning it from liquid form into a very elastic solid. It’s amazing how such a simple key component can add so much dimension – we loved our spring rolls! And we also loved our afternoon – learning to prepare new dishes, and engage with cool people.
Our friend Doris (whom we met in Turkey), was absolutely positively right about Hoi An! She said you better not miss it. I’m very glad we didn’t.. You know you love a place when it rains the whole time you are there and you still have an amazing time!