Hoi An, like much of our journey in Vietnam, is a surprise we were not expecting. In a moment of true traveller honesty I have to admit, although I’d read up about Hoi An, and the attraction of Old Town, I only did so in-depth after I already knew we were going there. Blame the open bus ticket if you will, blame the flaming tourist trail that carves its way up the belly of Vietnam. I’m blaming neither because to be completely honest, I kinda liked it that way.
By day Hoi An, or more specifically Old Town, is a living antique. People in the streets go about their business as though not being observed by travellers with their paper thin ‘smart’ technology. To the casual observer it appears almost as though the entire community has firmly sunk its heels into the grounds of time and refused to move forward with the rest of the world. The market is full of squawking chickens, the metallic smell of fish and meat being prepared for sale, and the sights of a plethora of local fruits and vegetables. It is deafening even walking through, but the constant cacophony almost sounds like a song when you realise the beauty of witnessing a single moment outside the constraints of a digital age. Women in rice farmer hats wander the streets in bamboo strung sandals and traditional dress, or navigate bicycles piled high with yet more interesting produce.
Once you pass through the gates of this world heritage site the buildings are held back in a bubble against time. Old style architecture and age-stained walls only add to the magic of the place. Many of the streets near the river are pedestrian streets only, leaving travellers and locals alike to wander among this museum caught in time. In between the houses, shops and cafes are slotted the cultural remnants of this once rich port city. Pagodas, incredibly detailed and almost overwhelming with their decoration, waft plumes of incense smoke into the street. Museums detailing the history of the town, cultural heritage centres and old community meeting halls from the 17th and 18th century await your exploration. Beyond that the Japanese Covered Bridge occupies most of the tourist mindset, but if you look beyond it and around the streets are an artistic masterpiece waiting for somebody to stop and simply observe.
We spend our time in Hoi An covering some of what we are told (in no uncertain terms) are the essentials. The sites on the map are gorgeous, but those off it take our breath away just the same. We get lost once or twice wandering the streets, finding it hard to pick out landmarks when many of the shops are mobile and constantly moving. The shaded streets are perfect to just aimlessly meander through, spending the day looking, loving and wondering just what Old Town might have been like when it wasn’t so old.
By night, Hoi An is another matter entirely. Sure, we had been told about the lanterns, even seen them in the daylight hours. But we were definitely not prepared for the wonders that awaited us on our nighttime excursion through those same narrow streets. The entire face of the town was changed. Age and moisture stained walls became abstract textures in the shadows of a million coloured rays of light. Strung up around the city they seem at a distance almost like monstrous fireflies captured by children seeking to banish the night. On the streets of Old Town, people eat Cao Lau under their watchful gaze, bathing in the half-light they toss down to the streets. On the other side of the river, the lanterns are sold in marketplace shops that look more like solar systems, with planets suspended in a breezy half orbit at all eye heights. They captivate young and old with the same dreamlike power. Even we are not exempt, finding ourselves drawn towards them in an impossibly magical way. Walking through the streets is more like a dream than ever before, and I want to stay there forever.
We walk for hours, experiencing more than observing and photographing. Chowing down on pork steam buns so hot they nearly melt our hands, and considering the electricity bill of the entire community is more than enough to keep us occupied. We walk back and forth across the bridge, and pause to see a light show on the Japanese Covered Bridge. Even doing nothing and buying nothing Hoi An’s Old Town provides ample entertainment and the people watching is sublime.
So do yourself a favour, sit at the street stalls (or even the many cafes and restaurants) and watch the world go by in Old Town. Imagine that you’re living inside the world’s biggest community of lantern enthusiasts, enjoy the beauty that’s laid out before you, and most importantly, enjoy it.
This post originally appeared on BarefootBeachBlonde.com, the pre-evolved version of Maps And Mandalas. I’ve republished it here with its original date because I love it that much.