Many visitors to Vietnam will be drawn to the North where the well-known, mysterious Halong Bay allures them. Or for the Southern seekers, to the tail end, where water outweighs land at the Mekong Delta. But along its ‘S’ shaped snaking terrain, hemmed in by rugged mountains that border Cambodia and Laos, is a lesser known fairyland that sits along the south central coastline. Euphoric and high on that super-drug we’ve all experienced and know as ‘falling in love’, we were heading to the UNESCO heritage town of Hoi An, voted as the most romantic city in the world by the India Times.
Translated as ‘peaceful meeting place’, Hoi An was once a major port between the 15th to 19th centuries, trading the finest silks and ceramics to all four corners of our globe. It served as a vital link between Europe and Asia, but that all came to an end when the mouth of the Thu Bon River became heavily silted and ships could no longer pass.
In some ways this fate has served Hoi An well. The town has remained virtually untouched, giving us the living time capsule that draws us to the wealth of historical buildings we see today. The Ancient Town has retained much of its original form and the influence of its past traders are apparent… French wooden shutters sit against facades of mustard yellow that are streaked and decorated with dripping pink bougainvillea… Tiled houses with red clay roofs, sit snugly along narrow cobbled streets, draped in quaint architectural nuances and silk lanterns that give hint to its Cantonese heritage… Ornate Chinese pagodas somehow sit in happy union with more primitive wooden buildings…
And finally there is the Japanese covered bridge; a unique covered structure which has become something of an emblem of Hoi An. The bridge itself is fairly unimpressive – the red paint on the entrances has long faded to a dusky pink, but below is Thu Bon River which runs along the prettiest stretch of the town where sampans and fishing boats reflect off its waters.
Yes, Hoi An is the quintessential example of old school charm – cars are banned, means of travel is by foot or on two wheels, but the slow pace of life has its drawback. Today, Hoi An relies solely on tourism. Hostels, restaurants and bars burst out around the old town to cater for frequenting honeymooners, but more so, this unavoidably leads to pushy locals who will have no qualms in giving you the hard sell.
Before we had even hopped on to our scooter, a young woman approached us outside our hotel. ‘Hello! Where you from?’ she called to us, dark eyes drawing us in from under her oversized helmet. She was straddled on the back of a scooter behind a taciturn, weathered-looking man.
I looked at her suspiciously when she asked us to visit her shop, just to ‘look-not-buy’… I had learnt there is no such sentiment in Vietnam, but for some reason we followed them, navigating through a network of small alleys in to the heart of Hoi An.
Originally a town of silk merchants, it has now become the tailoring capital of Vietnam. The streets were lined with tailors… Dresses from every colour of the rainbow and every style of a glossy fashion magazine, hugged the mannequins and seduced me in to the Aladdin’s cave of the ‘Su Tailor’ shop. Strapless, off the shoulder, single strap, cheongsams, long sleeved and short sleeved dresses in oranges, reds, turquoises and greens, danced and twirled at me in a ‘Cinderella-moment’.
I had no intention to buy; my sisters will attest to the fact I have enough dresses, some unworn, to supply a small boutique. But the touch of the finest silks, the sheerest chiffons and chantilly lace reduced me to a silly girly-ness I hadn’t experienced since I was a love-struck teenager. Shameless to say, an hour or so later I parted with a wad of cash with the promise that my new clothes would be ready in 24 hours.
We headed a few kilometres east to the Cua Dai Beach next, where I hoped we would be safe from temptation. With each turn, the never ending streets of tailor shops soon gave way to well-preserved ancient temples and pagodas… We meandered through cobbled streets now, passing open galleries of colourful art and merchant houses draped in silk lanterns… We past the Central market where the smell of food tantalised us in to making a short pit stop. Despite filling up on an abundant breakfast at the hotel, we sampled some of the local flavours – Cao lau, Hoi An’s signature noodle dish, dumplings, and banh xeo crispy pancakes.
The urban streetscape eventually gave way to beautiful surrounding countryside. Floodplains of extensive rice-paddies fanned out around us and stretched themselves towards the coast, where the promise of clear waters and fine, white sand beckoned to us.
Save for the constant heckling of women selling baskets of souvenirs, I couldn’t imagine anywhere else in the world I wanted to be. Life was mercifully quiet here, a welcome respite from crazy Saigon after two weeks. Gentle waves licked at our toes as we strode hand in hand along the shoreline. We watched the spherical bottomed boats bob along until they darkened to silhouettes as sunset descended upon us.
The romance of Hoi An was ever more compelling when we returned to the river on our last night. Quaint at day, by night it had transformed itself in to an enchanted scene from a fairy tale classic. It was the night before the full moon and following its monthly tradition, the city lights were switched off. The entire stretch of river was lit solely by fairy lights and floating lanterns in every shape and colour. The river was so black, the orange glow from surrounding buildings reflected perfectly off it’s still waters, only occasionally broken by a lantern as it gently gravitated at the whim of a breeze.
The song ‘Unchained Melody’ could be heard coming from a nearby restaurant…’Lonely rivers flow, to the sea, to the sea… Lonely rivers sigh “Wait for me, wait for me”…’
The scene was set for the perfect love story… Hoi An twinkled at us with every colour and seduced us all in to falling in love.
We stood on the bridge in an embrace taking in the full glory of this night time splendour. An elderly lady approached us and asked if we would like to light a floating lantern, with a wish that would promise many long years together. Filled with the madness of love, clutching on to all hope and fantasy that this would be – ‘they lived happily ever after’, I lit one and fished it in to the water. We watched it drift languidly away, joining the sea of flickering colours… and then, just as the fate of our short lived romance, it snaked around the river bend and in to utter darkness…