Hoi An… That Old Black Magic
There are certain places where you instantly feel magic. Your heart skips a beat, butterflies twist in your belly. The kind of feeling that lets you know you’re somewhere special.
Hoi An is one of those places.
My love affair began… the moment I arrived. Something had been nudging me to visit since the start of the year. At first, I ignored it. But after a string of challenges in Chiang Mai, I was itching to leave Thailand and hoping to wring out any negative associations with it. In April, I heard the calling again, louder than ever. It was time to obey.
Arriving by taxi from Da Nang Airport, I entered Hoi An with doe-eyed anticipation. Uncharacteristically, I knew next to nothing about this ancient little town. The only Vietnamese I knew was “xin chào” (“hello”). I had no real plan or itinerary. But as I passed emerald-green rice fields, a purple-tinged sunset, and a medley of rustic French Colonial buildings, I experienced what Frank Sinatra calls ”those icy fingers up and down my spine”. I knew I was here for a reason and that something special awaited, I just didn’t know what it was yet.
In the days that followed my arrival, I made some expat friends, started a writing gig with an awesome local digital magazine, and pinned down my favourite go-to spots for creature comforts like yoga classes and healthy food supplies. It quickly became apparent to me that I was here to stay for more than the “three weeks” I’d initially signed up for. Things seemed to fall into place; I’d meet the right people at the right time. The synchronicity of things validated my decision to come here.
Why I fell for Hoi An
It’s impossible to say why I knew so early on that Hoi An would be special. It was a seemingly baseless feeling that I (thankfully) decided to trust. But I could give you a shedload of reasons why you might fall in love with this dreamy town. Photogenic landscapes, centuries-old landmarks, friendly people, damn good food…
Hoi An is a part of Vietnam that doesn’t appear to have been shattered by war, at least on the surface. Its preserved buildings are like megaliths unscathed by the march of time, representing a window into a major trading port on the silk route between the 15th and 19th centuries. There’s a creative, industrious energy left behind by decades of movement, a palpable feeling of excitement everywhere you set foot. In its tailor shops, where skills can be traced through generations; its lively markets, where locals hustle and hunt for fresh produce; its incredible food scene, where regional dishes are made from closely-guarded secret recipes.
Trapped in an opulent era, Hoi An is spilling with romantic views: yellowed walls, colourful lanterns, winding canals. You can almost forget about the country’s devastating past and imagine you’ve stepped into a fairy tale.
By the same token, conscious travellers will hopefully want to learn about Vietnam’s history, and there are countless opportunities to do that in Hoi An. Passing through villages and meeting farmers; visiting historical sites and interacting with locals, or something as simple as sparking up a conversation with a vendor in a market can elicit a surfeit of impressions about what went down not-too-long-ago and the impact it’s had.
Walking through the ancient town feels like walking through a museum. The architecture alone offers an insightful glimpse into the past, revealing a melting pot of nationalities that have shaped Hoi An. You’ll see Chinese assembly halls and wooden houses; Japanese-style temples and pagodas as well as the Japanese Covered Bridge; and European-style buildings like French colonial houses with those shuttered windows and balconies that are reminiscent of old films I love.
A revolving door of tourists and expats hasn’t completely diluted the culture. During my time here, I’ve dined on local specialities in Vietnamese homes. Accidentally attended a wedding near the Night Market (I thought it was a pop-up rave). Watched a funeral ceremony from my balcony and awoken to monks chanting in honour of the dead. Witnessed locals burn huge wads of money (fake) each month as an offering to their ancestors. (Unintentionally) peeked into the homes of families in my neighbourhood to catch a glimpse of them eating a traditional dinner together on a mat. Attended outdoor night picnics beside the Thu Bon River with kind Vietnamese strangers who taught me how to wrap pancakes. These are just some of the delicious experiences I’ve been spoon-fed on a daily basis – and devoured every bite.
More than just the superficial
No amount of breath-taking sights or adventures can win my affection for a place if I don’t feel connected to the people that I cross paths with there. A nomadic life tends to be more compatible with ephemeral relationships, the kind that play out on Facebook for a while before dissipating into mere memories. In Hoi An I was united with my tribe once again. People who share my vision of the world, who understand my language. The nomadic quest for something new yet familiar. The excitement and discomfort of taking a leap of faith in the dark in hope of a deeper sense of fulfillment.
While the expat community in Hoi An is big it often feels small and intimate. The odds of running into someone you know is high at all times, while meeting someone new is usually a discovery of two or three degrees of separation.
Hoi An gave me a lot of things that I was craving while travelling: time and space, stillness and slowness, the gratifying proximity of nature. The opportunity to be connected with and get to know myself again, to listen to my inner compass, away from the impatience and intolerance of city life.
Despite being a small town, there’s a prevalent sense that anything is possible in Hoi An. It’s a fairly unsaturated marketplace with a lot of ambitious and resourceful people looking to ‘get things done’, and though I’ve seen a few projects simmer to an end, the overall creative energy is intoxicating.
It goes without saying that not everyone is going to be swept off their feet by this cosy little town. I’ve met travellers who’ve found it too slow-paced, too touristic, not well-connected enough, lacking in any sign of a nightlife… too damn hot. It isn’t for everyone. But for reasons abound it nestled its way into my heart. I fell for its weirdness and colours, its smouldering sunsets and salty beaches. There are certain sounds, textures and tastes that will always transport me back here. The humidity of the air across my cheeks as I cycle to beach in the morning. The bittersweet, velvety flavour of my favourite coconut and caffeine beverage. The omnipresent question in every shop or stall I peruse: you buy something? There are parts that I’ll keep coming back to and fragments that’ll only subsist in the realms of memory and imagination.
I decided (somewhat precipitously) in July that I’d return to Thailand in September. Though I don’t feel ready to leave yet, I’m putting my faith in the possibility that there’s an unseen rhyme and rhythm to the choices I make, that they stem from a sense of right-on-ness, and that an equally important chapter awaits elsewhere, just as it did in Vietnam four months ago. Will I come back one day? I think so. Hoi An feels like home. Whether it actually can be or will be, who knows. Perhaps home will always be London, the place I grew up, where I continue to return. Or maybe home is anywhere there’s silence and love and connection – where I’m able to find a truer, more nurtured version of myself, just as I have in Hoi An.