We choose Hoi An as the place where we’ll spend Tet, the celebration of Lunar New Year. Tet’s a family holiday, so in the few days preceding it the Vietnamese flock home to spend time with their relatives. Thinking along those lines we figure out that a city full of tourists, thanks to it’s infrastructure, will be the best option to avoid dying of boredom and hunger while the locals are feasting with at their homes. Our recent ticket price negotiations turned out pretty rough, so now we’re really worried about traveling around before the holidays, especially when the whole nation is heading home. The time of the holiday itself is also difficult — places close down and transportation options are pretty limited. We are right to be afraid, because as it turns out, negotiating prices before the holidays is not negotiating at all, rather, it goes along the lines of “give me an arm and a leg and be glad I’m not asking for more.” The two tickets for a night bus cost us as much as we’ve paid for seven previous nights of accommodation. But we’ve reached a Zen-like state in our travels and it’s real easy to deal with metaphorical amputations. It also helps that we can spend the waiting time on the beach and jumping over waves.
After a night-long crawl through traffic on a shiny disco bus, 4 days before Tet, we get out of the bus in Hoi An and breath with relief. The breath is short though, as after a couple of walks around the town and a few meals, we feel like getting the heck away. Hoi An, like many picturesque town listed as UNESCO sites, got transformed by tourism. Big cities are luckier in this regard because people there can live parallel to the tourism industry, while the smaller cities become “living fossils”, with their inhabitants driven out to the outskirts, while the old quarters are pleasantly renovated and filled with souvenir shops and westernized restaurants. We’ve heard many times that Hoi An is very beautiful. It’s true — the renovated houses look cute and together with the fascinating exoticism of Vietnam create a postcard-worthy vision of the country. The folky kitsch isn’t really repulsive, but the real problem was the difficulty we had with finding good food.
It’s not easy to find normal Vietnamese food in Hoi An, and the street food, though readily available, is not that good. Maybe it’s because the Tet will begin soon. Since we’re tired after the journey, we have lunch at the hotel restaurant. It’s so-so, but the pleasant white rose dumplings, a local specialty, put me in a good mood. To try cao lau, another Hoi An specialty, we make our way to the market, hoping the local people still eat there. The famous yellow rice noodles with pork are alright but nothing to write home about. The same goes for the small bahn xeo pancakes. We also try the stupendous (according to tripadvisor reviews) sandwiches from the so-called “banh mi queen”. They’re also OK but not better than the ones we’ve tried before at more-or-less random places. Thus we give up on street food and visit a restaurant. The one we choose is filled with raving notes left by fellow travelers. The notes are displayed everywhere — in the menu, on the walls and under table glass-tops There we have a pretty good stuffed calamari and the worst baked fish in banana leaves. It’s dry and burned at the bottom and I sadly gulp it down with beer trying to get rid of the charcoaly aftertaste. At the same time I’m looking at the reviews which claim the writers had here “the best meal in Vietnam”. Is there something wrong with me?
In the evening we head to the famous “Morning Glory” restaraunt. It’s run by Ms Vy, an interesting woman with a passion for food. She opened the first restaurant for tourists in Hoi An and now owns a small empire consisting of three restaurants, a hotel and a cooking school. Her mission is to provide tourists with local delicacies, home-made dishes and street food specialties in “civilized conditions”. The menu looks promising thanks to descriptions of dishes that give context and information on health benefits. But by the time we get there, our stomachs are rather full and we order only one thing — chao tom. It’s one of Vietnamese variations on the “minced meat on a stick” theme. A sugar cane stick is coated with ground shrimp paste and then grilled. After serving, pieces of the meat are wrapped together with toppings into rice paper rolls. The spiffy composition of herbs together with sour starfruit makes a pleasant whole but the meat itself is really greasy. We expected more, especially since this appetizer costs as much as a whole meal for two in a common eatery. At the end of the day I have mixed feeling about the city. For inspiration on the subject I look in Kim Fay’s book. There, one of the chapters on Hoi An is titled “Someone else’s favorites”. Bingo, Kim.