Venturing away from the hectic fervor of Saigon, we deliberately chose the smaller- more picturesque city of Hoi An as the next stop on our Northbound route. Hoi An, deemed the ‘gem’ of central Vietnam sounded too good to be true. And it was.
In fact, while many guide books and blogs alike recommend Hoi An as a necessary stop while traveling Vietnam, I disagree entirely. Skip it, I say!
With it’s charming architecture, hidden alleyways unchanged by time, and surroundings of pastoral rice paddies, we thought we would be in heaven. It is after all, the assumed birth place of the the Banh Mi sandwich – which is the best sandwich ever made. And yes, Anthony Bourdain dreams of Hoi An and gushes about it in one of his shows featuring his love affair with Vietnam. Unfortunately, Hoi An appears to be completely overrun by tourists now. But, this was not always the case, right?
The city was once the largest harbor in Southeast Asia but became unusable for trade at the end of the 18th century, when it’s main river dried up. The city’s development came to a standstill, thereby explaining the feeling of unhampered old world architecture and centuries old-urban planning. Cut to 2016, and the city of Hoi An seems to cater almost entirely to the needs of those tourists that pack its small streets offering them much else besides shopping, shopping or shopping (gross, gross, and gross, amiright?).
With so many cool and interesting places in Vietnam why is everyone so obsessed with Hoi An? Were we just late to the party? This question rang in our heads while we tried biking thru the old city looking for pockets of authenticity. This was the question we asked ourselves as we paid ridiculous prices for street food that we had just eaten elsewhere for a fraction of the cost. This was also the first topic of conversation that bonded us to an especially like-minded traveling duo (hi Laure! hi Alan!), that we met on the train leaving this god forsaken place. Neither us nor them had an answer. Which brings me to my second point…
The city of Hue. Hooray for Hue! (pronounced Huey)
We took the incredibly scenic train ride from Da Nang to Hue that runs along the cliffs of Vietnam’s central shoreline. (*Quick side note: many hotels in Hoi An will give you a whole speech about how you have to book your train in advance, blah blah – and the tourists offices will tell you the train is already sold out. Most of this stuff appears to be blatant exaggeration, a flagrant display of how people will tell you lies to get you to spend more money.)
In reality, the train station in Da Nang is very small and very straightforward. We went there 45 in advance of the train time (check dsvn.vn for timetables and more details about the type of train) and bought our tickets quite easily from the ticket window. You get an assigned seat and from there it’s all gravy. (*the assigned seat numbers are on the back of seat heads and refer to the seat in front of it, just FYI)
There is much to be said about Hue. Being that it was the former capital of Vietnam, there are impressive sites abound. From a giant citadel, to pagodas, from lovely riverside parks, to tombs of fallen Emperors. We thoroughly enjoyed renting bikes from the nearest place to our hotel and traipsing around the city as if we had done this a thousand times. (*We stayed at the Jasmine hotel – which I also highly recommend. Clean, nice location, and on booking.com our room was $25/night plus the added bonus of a sick rooftop pool pictured below).
The bikes were a couple bucks for the day and we certainly got our money’s worth. Leaving the city center and exploring the neighborhoods on either side of the road along the way to Tu Duc Tomb was incredible. (Biking inside any of the city’s in Vietnam is not for the faint of heart. But the payoff is worth the stress of having to navigate their busy freaking intersections.) Along one such road we came to a halt in front of a woman fanning a small charcoal fire and slowly turning pork skewers with the kind of professionalism I am constantly drawn to here.
The way that woman operate their food stalls, some no bigger than a milk crate, running them better and more efficiently than many of the state of the art kitchens I’ve seen. Tactfully placing each component where it needs to be, prepping many ingredients to order, and cooking things over charcoal fires like the bosses they are. It was at this roadside family operation that we tried our first Nem Lui, a dish traditional to Hue, that has several componants – the star of which being the ground pork skewers slowly charred over the fire. These are then presented to you with a table top full of accoutremont. Including: a pile of lettuce and herbs, a stack of dry rice papers, some pickled green papaya (floating in a sea of fish sauce, sugar and citrus), fresh cucumbers, mango slices, some unripened locally grown fig (trai va – which is grown only in that region and used unripened but boiled), and a peanuty dipping sauce. The woman showed us first how to best construct the delectable spring roll and then we were left to our own devices.
Without speaking a word of the same languages it is a wonderful experience to learn whatever I can from the women I am interacting with.
In Hue, for example, I insisted that a woman let me try her incredibly difficult technique of rolling out rice noodles using a metal pipe and a giant cleaver. This is her doing it in slow mo – in real time she whacked the hell out of that tube in 15 seconds flat. Dak, dak, dak, dak, dak….
Her demo made it look so easy, albeit higly technical. But alas, the dough was remarkably sticky and lacked any elasticity to aid in the process. So while I clumsily attempted to do what she does (impossible, really) we all had a good laugh at my obvious ineptatude. Noodles in this country should be left to the professionals. Lesson learned.
There are times we ate something in Hue and really had no idea what it was. But this has continued to be the best method. A quick assessment of a stall on the street has led to a many wonderful meals tucked in to tiny tables next to tons of locals, and feeling great, and eating even better. My advice remains the same in each city – find a crowd of people eating and join them.
If you find yourself in Hue, enjoy the fact that this city, while full of people, has a far less overwhelming crowded feeling to say Hanoi or HCMC. While there are many backpackers and tourist-folk in Hue, it is refreshingly business as usual for the majority of the residents we encountered.