Meeting place of drama and romance

Popular belief says that Venice is the most romantic city of the world. Well, there is a big rival to that title. Wait for Hoi An to switch on its thousands lanterns and you’ll wish your boyfriend proposed to you right there and then. When night falls over the city, it responds with an explosion of colour and light. Romance is in the air. Young people fall in love and those already in love hold their hands tighter. Streets and alleys light up with rows of silk lanterns, restaurants put on dim lighting, cafes play soft tunes. Girls and ladies walk along river bank selling candles on paper trays. Make a wish and let the river carry your candle away. I made mine.

Magical at night, Hoi An is also mesmerising in daylight. The centre is beautifully preserved and immaculately cared for. It is a UNESCO heritage sight and a pride of Vietnam. The name Hoi An means “peaceful meeting place” and in the past, thanks to its vicinity to the sea, it was a port where merchants traded their goods on calm waters of Thu Bon river. Today merchant houses are transformed into shops and restaurants, while many of them are still houses to ancient families. Some of the houses are open for visits and we used that opportunity to taste a slice of the past. The houses were typically a fusion of Vietnamese style with Chinese and Japanese influences. Considering how crammed the houses are in the centre they are surprisingly spacious and airy inside. Each house has two levels and two court yards. What stirred our curiosity was a trap door on the floor of the first floor. Girl that was showing us around told us that it was for lifting furniture up to the first floor in times of flood. The town is regularly flooded in rainy season. A sign inside one of the rooms showed that in 2009 water was over 2 meters high. It almost reached the ceiling.

Romantic at night, during the day Hoi An revealed its more dramatic face. One only had to look past souvenir shops to see darkened by water alleyways and cracked houses. Getting lost in the maze of Hoi An’s narrow alleyways and secret passages was our favourite pastime. It was there where paint was chipping off blue walls, vendours passed hurriedly with their goods and cooks pealed vegetables. They were a photographer’s dream come true. I could imagine us staying in Hoi An for a few months photographing its every mood, be it sunny side up or destructive power of the river. The town was fascinating.

Yet, Hoi An was not only about the elusive visual beauty. It was also a culinary heaven. Food in north Vietnam was quite mundane and a repetition of what we had in Cambodia and Laos. The cuisine of Hoi An was a whiff of fresh air. Even though there are countless restaurants and cafes serving most delicious food, we didn’t eat there even once. There was no need. Sidewalks and little corners were filled with street food. We found different delicacies at different times of day. At night we walked from one stall to another to try new specialities, our taste buds melting with delight. Cao Lau, bam bao, bah can, cam ga, mi quang, hen xao, ban pho and banh xeo were only a few local dishes we tasted. All of them freshly made in front of us, served with heaps of salad and fresh herbs, chilli and soy sauce. It is a finger-licking paradise.

But the joys of palate didn’t end there. Hoi An was also home to a top quality bakery. Pastries we had in Cargo Cafe easily qualify as one of the best we had in our lifetime. And a lady at a gate of the temple next to Japanese bridge made divine dessert of soft tofu with ginger sauce and coconut milk. Allelujah to all ladies of Hoi An for their culinary talent. If there was a Golden Pot award, you would win it.

Taking into account its historic heritage and exquisite food, no wonder Hoi An overflows with tourists. We wished there were less of them, but we were there too, so it was egoistic to think that we had more right to be there than everyone else. Still, even though many over-enthusiastic tourists flooded the town centre we never had problems with finding a quiet moment even in the most popular places. Japanese bridge, the most popular sight of all, was deserted in early morning, temples had their moments of peace at lunch time and streets emptied after 8pm. They were these precious little moments when we felt we had it all to ourselves.

For all beach lovers, Hoi An has yet another treat. Sandy beach and blue sea is only 3km away. One day we jumped on rented bicycles and drove to the shade of palm trees on Cua Dai beach. Hoi An could get a little overwhelming with its colours, people and traffic. Half a day on a sea shore was a balm to our senses.

At times Hoi An seemed like a Disneyland where everything was done to please tourists, at other times it seemed to live its life independently of the visiting crowds. When it comes to me and Alessandro, it never failed to inspire us. I had my sketchbook with me at all times and we never left our room without fully charged photo camera. In four days we took over 5000 photos. I filled 10 pages with sketches and notes.

My wish said “Please let me come back here again and again”.










































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