What The Hell Happened To Hoi An?
I walked through the dark streets of Hoi An, the ancient trading port in central Vietnam, seeking some of the peace I’d found there five years earlier.
My head was pounding and my mood was foul, the result of an eight-hour bus trip during which I was blasted with the dubbed Vietnamese soundtrack of Skyfall, a Jackie Chan movie and two rounds of a Vietnamese variety show called Paris By Night. As well as the demands of three-year-old Miss M, who wanted to run up and down the aisle for the five hours she was awake, an option I viewed as very dangerous.
I wanted, no NEEDED some serenity. And serenity was what I remembered from my two previous visits to the World Heritage-listed Hoi An, known as Vietnam’s “ancient town” for its 600-year-old houses and pagodas.
As I walked, I was bombarded with more noise – crude gangsta rap lyrics from a seedy-looking bar – as well as the garish light spilling from all the commercial enterprises: tailor shops, lantern shops, restaurants and bars with names like Meet Market. The streets were crowded with tourists, some talking quietly, most talking over-loudly about the hard bargains they’d driven and which bar had the cheapest beer.
I tried to get my bearings so I could head towards the river, a place I remembered as perfect for a quiet evening stroll. I didn’t have a map, relying only on my vague rememberings of how the town was laid out.
As I drew closer to where I thought the river was, the noise levels increased. I turned the corner to find the riverfront as crowded as the Gold Coast during Schoolies Week.
As well as the milling crowds, there was a Vietnamese man screaming into a microphone, promoting some kind of Punch and Judy show. Further along, another screecher, this one seemingly promoting a sideshow game. There was a pedestrian bridge across the river and on the other side of the Thu Bon River, a place that was completely dark last time I was here, was a strip of new ancient-style buildings containing still more brightly-lit restaurants and bars.
I. Was. Horrified.
All the charm and peace seemed to have been developed out of Hoi An, a place I had been yearning to return to for years.
I fled to a pricey wine bar and drank some New Zealand wine, hating myself for seeking comfort in such a non-Vietnamese setting. But I couldn’t go back to our hotel yet. I needed to unwind from the horrible bus trip and our even-worse dinner.
Yes, dear friends, I led my unwitting family into a tourist trap for our first meal in Hoi An. I thought it was a good option because I’d found the recommendation on an obscure Vietnamese website. Darling Man had agreed to trust my research because the dish I was chasing, known as bánh bao bánh vạc in Vietnamese and the very touristy White Rose in English, was more a Chinese dish than a Vietnamese dish. And so he deferred to my supposed greater wisdom (which in this case was simply the result of hours wasting Googling Hoi An food options.)
We were given the tourist menu even though Darling Man spoke to the waitress in Vietnamese. And as I tried to tempt Miss M to eat something … anything … Darling Man realised that the Vietnamese people behind us were being charged far less per dish than what was printed on our English menu. He wanted to leave. But we’d walked so far, carrying Miss M most of the way, and there didn’t seem to be any other restaurants nearby.
We ordered and ate under a cloud of polite tension, Darling Man vibrating with outrage over the expected overcharging, me feeling pretty ticked off that I’d been tricked by the Internet.
After we paid the bill, which was – thankfully – less than the advertised price, Darling Man and I agreed to take a bit of a break from each other. He caught a taxi back to our hotel for some air-conditioned television viewing. I went looking for Hoi An’s charm. And I just could not find it.
Has Hoi An changed so much in the past five years or have I?
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