Hoi An is a town in central Vietnam about an hour from Da Nang, the country’s third largest city. Da Nang is very popular with tourists because of My Khe Beach, which is supposed to be very scenic with white sand and calm waters. Initially we had planned on spending a week on the beach, but when I realized we’d be arriving during the rainy season, I changed our hotel reservation for Hoi An which seemed to offer more things to do in bad weather. The town is known for its tailor-made clothing and lantern festival. It was a trading port for centuries, and the old quarter is a UNESCO heritage site because it has been largely preserved (unaffected by the war), with old merchants’ houses, a Japanese-style covered bridge, a few famous temples, and a big market area.
We spent the week at a hotel called Full House Homestay, which was a 20 minute walk from the old quarter. The hotel prices in Vietnam are unbelievably cheap. Our room was enormous, with two king-sized beds, a small desk, and two armchairs around a coffee table. It was clean, comfortable and had a delicious breakfast included – fresh fruit, crêpes, coffee, tea, and juice, and our choice of eggs or phở. We paid $35 per night. While staying in that room, I kept thinking back to a Motel 6 where we’d spent two nights during our USA road trip near Moab (Utah). It set us back $80 CAD per night, was so filthy that we all slept in our clothing, and the breakfast consisted of cardboard-like waffles on Styrofoam plates and lukewarm brown liquid which I hesitate to call coffee. I bring this up because I always knew that Southeast Asia was an inexpensive travel destination, but I guess I didn’t expect the quality of accommodation to be high, or the value for money to be so good.
While in Hoi An, we dabbled with the idea of tailor-made shoes and clothes, but ultimately didn’t buy anything. We read that it’s quite a process: haggling with the tailors, choosing the style and materials of the clothing, getting fitted repeatedly, and sometimes ending up with ill-fitting clothing anyway that you never wear. I think the experience in itself could be fun for tourists and families, but we weren’t really in the mood since Roman wasn’t feeling well. I also have terrible fashion sense, so I probably shouldn’t be designing my own clothing.
Instead, we explored the old quarter’s markets and historic buildings. Hoi An has a lantern festival every year, and most shops in the town are decorated with beautifully patterned cloth lanterns. We walked into a random lantern shop and saw that the owner offered daily lantern-making classes for about $5 per person. The kids each made a lantern while I helped. It was a lot of fun – a bit challenging, but not so much that we couldn’t do it, and the boys felt so proud of their lanterns at the end. We even carried them all the way home to Calgary even though they were quite bulky.
In the evening the lanterns around the old quarter were lit, and the flickering lights reflected off the dark lakewater. As soon as the sun began to set, boat hawkers materialized to sell tourists a boat ride on the lake, along with simple floating lanterns made of paper with a some oil and candle-wick. You can float your paper lantern on the lake and make a wish. Even though we resented being yelled at aggressively by the Vietnamese women selling boat rides (“Hello!” “Boat!” “HEY!” “You Go!”), we did take a boat around the lake, and it was rather nice to be away from the noise and the crowds and just observe the lovely lit-up town from the water. We released our paper wish-lanterns into the lake, and I wondered what happens to the hundreds of lanterns that tourists float here every night. Do they get cleaned up in the morning? Do they sink below the water to rest at the bottom of the lake? I’m still not sure.
We also used this website http://hoiannow.com/ to find places to go in town with kids. This is how we found The Dingo Deli, a restaurant with tasty sandwiches and kids’ meals with a play space at the back. We also visited a pottery village and terracotta museum. The museum had one area with famous landmarks from around the world reproduced from terracotta (The Eiffel Tower, The Colosseum, The Statue of Liberty, etc.). In the pottery village, the boys got to try using the pottery wheel.
We went to the Hoi An Rock-Climbing Centre, which is only open in the evenings on weekdays since Vietnamese kids are in school during the day (makes sense). It had a tall outdoor climbing wall wedged between two coffee shops. Both Peter and I tried to climb up, and we both made it only halfway before being belayed back down. I don’t have a fear of heights, but when I looked down from the halfway point, I suddenly got very nervous thinking that the only thing holding me up were my own muscles. The climbing centre also had an indoor play structure and ball pit that the boys enjoyed, especially once a bunch of Vietnamese kids came by and they engaged in a complicated ball-throwing battle game. I love it when kids overcome the language barrier so easily and just play.
The boys and I also signed up for an all-day cooking class/tour while Roman spent the day at a co-working space (i.e.: shared office space where you can drop-in and work), which was designed primarily for expats in Hoi An. Although Roman paid a daily drop-in fee, most of the other patrons at the office space were regulars who paid about $300 USD per month to rent a small apartment, which included a few meals per day, access to the workspace, and a community of expats to hang out with. Pretty good deal.
Meanwhile, our cooking class began with a tour of the market to learn about the ingredients and spices used in the dishes we would be preparing.
We were then taken on a boat ride through a coconut village which was fun, but also baffling. With dozens of other tourists, we were herded onto circular boats that floated down a narrow river. There were so many boats that they swayed against each other and collided (like bumper boats at an amusement park). On some boats, the young and energetic rower would stop his boat, turn on some dance music, and dance wildly for the mostly Korean crowd who clapped along and gave him tips. The woman paddling our boat was older, and thankfully did not do any dancing (that would have been awkward and embarrassing for everybody involved). After making a round of the lake, we were deposited back on land and taken to a restaurant to cook our meals. I am not sure why this boat detour was included in the cooking class, but the whole thing felt like an elaborate ride for tourists.
At the restaurant, I became nervous when the boys were given cutting boards and large cleavers to chop vegetables. I quickly removed Sam’s cleaver and assured him there would be other cooking he could do. I anxiously hovered over Peter as he attempted to cut up vegetables, the knife edging precariously close to his fingers. Eventually, the knives were cleared away, I breathed a sigh of relief, and the rest of the cooking class went well. We got to eat our dinner at the end: fresh spring rolls with peanut sauce, papaya salad, claypots with rice and pork, and deep-fried pancakes with quail eggs.