Christmas in Hoi An (by Carmen)
Hoi An is one extremely adorable town. Once an important port, it now contains enough 18th and 19th century architecture that one can easily imagine life a couple hundred years ago. These days, Chinese and Japanese tradesmen have been replaced with tourists, ships have been replaced by motor boats offering tours and tailor shops have proliferated.
Yes, tailoring. In addition to the historic atmosphere it has become Hoi An’s claim to fame. In fact, it was a major reason for our visit. A friend of a friend had her wedding dress made here for less than $100. In the wedding world, that’s the stuff of legend since dresses can easily go for thousands of dollars. I hoped to get my own wedding dress made but my prospects weren’t promising at first. I wasn’t liking the fabric choices nor the prices, which were well above $100 for a rather simple dress. Finally, we found Kimmy’s who made me a beautiful lace dress for a very reasonable sum. Score! Nathan and I soon discovered that getting custom clothing is addicting. In the end we each got a suit and some dress shirts. I also got a skirt and a trench coat. All in the span of 4 days!
Besides getting our wedding attire made, we had been looking forward to Hoi An for another reason. Our friends Julia and Jonathan were taking an extended honeymoon in southeast Asia and invited us to join them for part of it. It was so great to see old friends, especially since we would be spending Christmas and new year together. We started our first day together with some thick Vietnamese coffee at a sidewalk stall, catching up on life. Thoroughly energized, we wandered around the Old Town sights.
Hoi An old town has a charmingly weathered look to it. We popped in and out of old merchant homes turned into museums and shops. Eventually, the old town bleeds into the vibrant market area where all manner of fruit, veg and meat are sold.
Like us, Julia and Jonathan love to eat well and were just as eager as we were to sample the local specialties on offer. One, elegantly called white rose, is a delicate shrimp dumpling topped with lots of fried garlic. Another was mì quảng, a noodle dish using turmeric, pork broth and herbs topped with peanuts and a savory rice cracker.
Another street eat was a delicious bún cha, egg cups we had already tasted in a restaurant in Ho Chi Minh. I liked them even more streetside as you could see and smell the wood fire used to cook them. In the market we waited for a spot to eat bún thịt nướng, rice noodles with herbs, chili and roasted pork on top. It hit all the right salty, sweet, spicy and sour notes.
After one of our bigger meals, we rented bikes and rode out to the surrounding countryside. This is where you get to see everyday Vietnamese life. For example, how do you transport your three live pigs on one scooter? As we pedaled further out of town we found ourselves surrounded by canals and rice paddies. In the middle of one set of paddies we noticed a cemetery that we simply had to go check out. As we explored the tombstones we discovered a water buffalo surprised by our presence. Fortunately, he stood perfectly still for his photo opp.
When cycling became too much we let someone else do the work by boarding a motorboat for a leisurely one hour ride. We passed stilted riverside homes, row boats and the lively fish market.
Then it was Christmas! So far away from home and family, it didn’t feel quite like Christmas was actually happening. Having Julia and Jonathan there helped and together we decided to make a special night of it. That’s how we ended up at Mermaid Restaurant for a thoroughly enjoyable meal. After some white roses, hot pot and a few strong cocktails we were definitely feeling merry and bright.
Our last morning in Hoi An we headed to our favorite street food street, Tran Cao Van. We ate some fantastic fried eggs topped with tomatoes, a bit of pork broth and cilantro alongside a roll of fluffy bread.
A quick pho for lunch and we then embarked on yet another scooter adventure, this time to the ruins of My Son. These ruins were supposedly once as grand as those at Angkor Wat but were heavily damaged in war bombings. During our ride there it began to rain, then it began to pour. Of course, just as we were leaving the rain softened up a bit and the as we scooted back to Hoi An we air dried. But before we made it to town we were held up by thousands of school children on bikes, making their way home. It was an incredible sight.
I’m so happy I was able to spend Christmas in Hoi An with people I cared about. And I have to say, trying on my wedding dress and loving it instantly was the best Christmas present I could hope for on this trip. Until next time, Hoi An. I’ve got a good feeling we will see you again some day.