Mr Anh and Mr Cuba delivered us straight to our guesthouse a little out of town, where we promptly fell asleep because it’s very tiring sitting on the back of a motorbike on a sealed highway for five hours (apparently). The next day we woke up refreshed, found an amazing pho restaurant two doors down from us and got chatting to another person staying in the guesthouse about Hoi An’s Old Town, where we could find lots of narrow, short-stooled establishments along the river selling mugs of flat, warm, home-brewed beer. You could just about see Leigh’s ears perk up at the sound of that so off we went on our bicycles to search out a drink that only a British person would be interested in ordering when it was hot, humid and there were £3 cocktails on offer.
Luckily for me the deal was sweetened when we arrived in the Old Town and realised that it was a night of a lantern festival. On the 14th day of each lunar month the Old Town turns off all electricity while people hang lanterns and float candles down the river. People also set up miniature alters outside their houses and businesses with fruit, incense and paper money offerings to help bring prosperity. It’s beautiful.
The next day we came back and bought 120,000-dong tickets that let us pick five of the paid attractions to visit within the Old Town. We stopped at Cam Pho Communal House, Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, the Museum of Hoi An History and Culture and Quan Cong Temple together which seemed to us a good representation of the different entries that were available. We had a couple of hours before the show at the Traditional Art Performance House so Leigh opted out and gave me his last entrance stub, which I used to visit the Museum of Folk Culture.
After around an hour of wandering around the streets it was time to sit down for the show. A group of eight different people played traditional instruments, acted out folk stories and performed traditional dance before we (the audience) were invited to play a game of “bingo”. Tickets were passed out with a single symbol and while one of the performers sang a Vietnamese song, she drew out paddles to show which symbols were the winners. In the exact moment I wished Leigh was there (because he wins all games of chance)… my symbol came up! I won a small red tasselled lantern with “Hoi An” embroidered into it, as did three other people in the audience. Great fun!
Our next few days in Hoi An were all talking to different tailors, finding new places to eat amazing food and going to the beach. We moved to a hostel a lot closer to town and Leigh hired a motorbike to visit My Son while I stuck to pedal power and set off towards Tra Que Herb & Vegetable Village, about 2km from where we were staying.
When you start getting close there are a lot of signs saying “Please buy a ticket before entering” and “Please pay before coming in”… yet no ticket office or collector in sight and the few guesthouses I timidly asked couldn’t help. In the end I walked in and was welcomed into the first house I went by. It turned out they were having a party to celebrate the life of one of the family matriarchs on the anniversary of her death and I was sat on a stool, holding a stranger’s baby, loosing drinking games to a man with no teeth before I could ask their names. They wouldn’t hear of my paying for a ticket to look at the gardens, although I did manage to pay for a coffee before one of the older ladies tied the ribbon of a paddy hat under my chin and sent me off with my camera.
It’s a relatively small area, maybe size of a football pitch (but a slightly odder shape), which is run as a communal farm by the surrounding villagers. They grow lots of different herbs and leafy green vegetables which are sold on to restaurants back in Hoi An. I returned the hat, thanked them profusely, promised to tell all of my friends who might come to Vietnam to visit (Annie, Jordan and Michael!) and headed to An Bang beach to kill time while the sun was at its hottest (if you’re going to be uncomfortably hot, you might as well do it on a sun bed with the sea close at hand to cool off in, no?).
In hindsight, I may have had a very mild case of heatstroke when I left the beach later in the afternoon. The idea was to wind my way back to Hoi An through rice paddies and backroads, stopping at a silk farm on my way. I got the rice paddies and backroads part right but completely missed the silk farm: instead I looped out about an extra 2km north-west, crossed the river at a very unfamiliar crossing and ended up coming back into Hoi An from the north in peak hour traffic instead of from the east in relaxed, barely-any traffic. Lesson learned. Thankfully I got back in time to meet Leigh and go to the tailor to pick up our suits and my dress! After two fittings everything fit like a glove. If you’re after quality work, head to Ha Na on Tran Hung Dao Street.
2015 Update: The rules have changed since we visited! If you go to Hoi An you’ll now have to buy a 120,000-dong ticket just to walk around the Old Town area. The ticket includes five “entrance stubs” to visit various “paid attractions” within the area, so if you were planning to do that anyway it won’t make much difference. The ticket should give you access for 10 days so you can go back to wander along the river and grab a drink after you’ve used all the entrance stubs. If you’re on a tight budget and weren’t planning to visit any of the paid attractions, try crossing the river at Cam Nam or Song Hoai Square Bridge and walking down the opposite bank, especially if you’re there during a lantern festival and want to see the lights 😉