A few kilometres further down the coast from Danang we came upon Non-Nuoc Beach. It’s a long, white sandy beach renowned for both its spectacular beauty and for its history as an R&R destination for American troops during the Vietnam War when it was known as "China Beach". Nowadays its home to mostly fancy resorts and sections of it is pretty much deserted.
It was well past lunchtime and as we rode into Hoi An we decided to grab something to eat before checking into our hotel. We found a local eatery next to the river serving only a handful of dishes. All delicious!
By now we were all too familiar with “Pho” (pronounced Fua) – a staple of Vietnam apart from rice. It consists of broth, rice noodles, a few herbs, and some meat. Very simple but you will find good renditions and also some very bad ones. In the region of Hoi An there is a local variation called “Cao Lau” - also rice noodles but not quite as slippery as ‘pho’ and a bit closer in texture to pasta. It’s topped with slices of roast pork and dough fritters. Absolutely delicious and by far the best version of Pho in Vietnam!
We found a good deal at the Pho Hoi Riverside Resort (rather swanky) for 2 nights. Double room en-suite with buffet breakfast for $25 per night. They also had a lovely pool and is located right next to the river across the bridge from the Old Town so we could walk everywhere.
Hoi An Ancient Town is (was?) a well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique place. The heart of the city is the Old Town, full of winding lanes and Chinese-styled shophouses, which is particularly atmospheric in the evening as the sun goes down. While almost all shops now cater to the tourist trade, the area has been largely preserved as is, which is unusual in Vietnam, and renovation has proceeded slowly - it's mercifully absent of towering concrete blocks, neon signs and karaoke parlours.
If ever Disney wants to build a Vietnam Theme park it will probably look like Hoi An. However I’m certain the culture & heritage that UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the old Town was trying to preserve has long since gone - because these things happen. The community, and with it their culture and heritage, has gone and in their place are only shops, restaurants and art galleries, etc. There are literally hundreds of tailor shops in Hoi An all selling similar products to ever reducing numbers of Western foreign tourists.
Literally almost every building in the downtown area of Hoi An that isn't a restaurant is a shop selling one of the following: clothes, shoes, souvenirs, bags, or jewellery. These places are pretty much entirely geared to sell to tourists – definitely not to Vietnamese. Prices are often inflated compared to the rest of Vietnam because of this and are quoted in dollars (the 1st place we found where this was the case during our travels and usually a bad sign), so haggling is very necessary.
Hoi Ann was also the place where we found the ‘sales technique’ of shops owners and assistants to be the MOST aggressive of anywhere we have ever experienced before. Generally, Vietnam is quite bad but here it was on a level approaching absurd. We often speculated how it could possibly be a successful tactic and how they could not realise that by giving patrons a bit more space (and less pressure) sales may actually be more forthcoming.
Even merrily walking down a street don’t be surprised if someone approaches you wanting to guide you to a shop. On every street corner there’s a guy offering the same thing “you want moto?”. Walk past a shop (or heaven forbid the market) and a chorus will sound out: “Madame! Madame! You buy! You buy! What are you looking? You want!? You want!?”. It’s utterly exhausting. When you DO spot something and you stop to have a look the frenzy is taken up a couple of notches. Even when holding something in your hand or looking at something specific, assistants will attempt to shove items in front of you or try to hand it to you chanting the familiar “You want? You want? “.
Bargaining in Vietnam is a lot trickier than what we have found in other parts of South-East Asia. Custom dictates that if you ask for the price it means that you are ready to buy and all that is left is negotiation. Asking for a price and merely walk away is considered to be rude and you will feel the wrath of the shop owner following you. Unfortunately, opening prices are sometimes ludicrously high and give no incentive to start bargaining - which complicates matters further. If you are used to the Thai way of friendly bargaining you might also be surprised at how different the approach is. It may be because we are tourists but the general feeling is that they’re doing YOU a favour – not the other way around – and even when you buy something the attitude is less than forthcoming.
Unless you really know what you SHOULD be paying for certain items you are probably better off sticking to “fixed price” stores. We have seen the same items for sale at “touristy” markets like Ben Tanh (in Saigon) for 500% more than other places. Even if you manage to bargain it down you’re still being ripped a new one.
That being said there are some real bargains to be had all over Vietnam. Hoi An has a long tradition of copying and then rapidly making up new garments for travellers. You can bring in clothes (or even a picture of clothes) that you want copied to any tailor shop and they will try to imitate it. You can often choose the type of fabric and the colour you want. All the shoe shops in Hoi An will make custom shoes for you. You can ask them to make you a style that you see there, or one in a catalogue or picture – ready for collection the following day.
But I digress. Hoi An as a tourist destination is extremely pleasant. Parts of the Old Town are pedestrianized after a certain hour every day and there are often live music and games on the streets. Loads of restaurants offer great value or you can sit next to the river on tiny chairs and enjoy the sunset with a couple of beers and amazing food.
After dark, the Old Town lits up under hundreds of lanterns and Vietnamese girls in traditional dress sell floating lanterns to tourists. Truly a stunning spectacle.