Vietnam is a country marked by the motorbike horn. It’s less warning and more punctuation; the sound of everyday life. But not in Hoi An. At 3pm every day, the Vietnamese cacophony in this coastal town dies down.
With a receding din, the motorbikes and scooters filter out of the streets and alleyways. The horns go quiet and stillness fills the air. That’s when the music starts.
Yes, during Hoi An’s pedestrianized periods (8:30–11am and 3–9:30pm), music is piped in through speakers dotted throughout the old town. It’s not traditional Vietnamese music but Western classical: Bach, Mozart, Chopin.
It’s jarring, at first. It can feel like a grown-up’s Disneyland. But it’s also tranquil. Soon enough, classical music on these quiet streets is just another layer of mixed cultures in a town built on precisely that.
PEACEFUL MEETING PLACE
Hoi An was once considered the most important port in Southeast Asia. For 200 years between the 16th and 18th centuries, traders from across China, Japan, India and Europe converged on the town in search of spices and silk.
Hoi An—meaning ‘peaceful meeting place’—took on the characteristics of those who came to it: from the buildings to the food and the culture.
The town’s star fell in the late 18th century, as trade moved to nearby Da Nang. Hoi An remained quiet and forgotten for years: of so little importance that not even the Vietnam War touched it.
As a result, Hoi An is a nearly pristine old town, marked by its centuries of association with the rest of the world.
POCKETS OF PEACE
The old town isn’t a big place, but its three or four main streets are interspersed with countless alleyways and byways.
If you venture away from the tailors’ shops, restaurants and souvenir shacks you’ll find alleys are speckled with homes, stalls and out-of-the-way restaurants in which to while away your time. It’s a town to get briefly, but satisfyingly, lost in.
Hoi An’s buildings reflect a sense of calm and forgottenness. All painted the same shade of rich yellow, they’re now flecked with green moss and grime. Bursts of pastel blue or green break the monotony.
Chinese and Japanese architecture permeate the temples and the rows of wooden houses. Many of the buildings are built on the same template: two-story constructions with a small open courtyard.
The best place to observe the architecture is in one of the town’s many art galleries, such as T&G Art Gallery (46 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street).
On a rainy day, the courtyard becomes a place of slow, dripping water and artwork set slightly too close to the open air. It’s peaceful; silent but for the strains of Mozart drifting in from the streets.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
Vietnamese coffee is a drink for the patient. It’s brewed in individual phin filters over glass cups, onto a layer of condensed milk. The coffee drips slowly, maddeningly so if you’re used to a quick espresso hit. But the brewing is to be savored, not rushed.
The resulting coffee is redolent with caramel and hazelnut, strong and sweet. The whole process is conducive to a slower, more pensive frame of mind.
Hoi An Roastery has three branches across town. They seem to have a knack for finding great locations. Sit on the balcony at the Hai Ba Trung branch to watch the town slide by, as tourists and tailors and touts wander past.
RUINS AND RUMINATIONS
For a sense of peace, rise early one morning and make the hour’s journey west to a group of abandoned Hindu temples (expect a private car to cost about US$25).
As you’ll hear many a backpacker pontificating, My Son doesn’t compare to the sheer grandeur of Angkor Wat. But it’s still a beautiful place.
Built between the 4th and 13th centuries, the site was once the political and religious heartland of the mighty Champa kingdom. Sadly, much of My Son was destroyed by US bombing during the Vietnam War.
Restorations works are underway—but the bomb craters remain, a sobering reminder of the impact of war.
If you’re going to My Son, it’s important to go early. Tour groups begin to arrive at 10am—at which point peace goes out the window.
As evening arrives, Hoi An begins to glow with life. Restaurant boats line the banks of the Thu Bon river, with tiny tables serving up flawless thit nuong grilled pork and the local specialty, spiced pork cao lau noodles.
Women in low sampans offer tours along the waterfront: Hop on board at sunset and you’re gently rowed along the shores.
The sky will turn orange and purple and gold, as will the handmade silk lanterns lining the streets of the old town. Your guide will fish out a small paper lantern with a single candle inside, lighting it—and asking for a bit more money, of course.
Lean out of the boat, make a wish and release the lantern into the river. Watch it float away downstream, joining its fellow wishes on a journey toward a sunset sea.
Have you found your own peace in Hoi An? Tell us below in the comment box.