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The Hidden Treasure of Hoi An

I first discovered the small riverside town of Hoi An in January 2003 whilst travelling through Vietnam by minibus from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to the capital city in the North, Hanoi. I purchased an open-ended bus ticket for US $18 that allowed me the freedom to embark and disembark freely at any of the six or seven designated towns and cities along the route. I discovered Hoi An after thirty-five hours and more than nine hundred kilometres of bumping my way along the largely unmade roads of Vietnam, crammed into a packed minibus with eighteen other tourists, four Buddhist monks and a tightly packaged statue of Buddha. The sight of these deeply religious men accompanied by the Buddha himself reassured me whenever the Vietnamese driving frightened me to the point were I was forced to close my eyes and pray for my safety. However, the eventual safe arrival in Hoi An and the discovery of this bustling, lively town provided a welcome relief, and I enjoyed it so much I returned exactly one year later in 2004 on my return to England after spending nine months living and working in Australia.

A river runs through it..

Although Hoi An is not particularly known outside of Vietnam, it will almost certainly be mentioned to you by any travel agency in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi as the destination where a tailor-made suit can be purchased for US $25. I remained largely sceptical about the very accuracy of this fact, and indeed the quality of a suit that cost so little to make, but the purpose of my preliminary trip to Vietnam was merely to experience different cities throughout the country, stopping off for some time in those we liked. When we reached Hoi An after the long and uncomfortable bus journey from the south, the only thing I was in need of was a shower and a comfortable bed. My expectations of the prophesised clothing were coupled with a healthy dose of English scepticism, and I have to admit, I found the prospect of such reasonably priced clothing far too good to be true. We arrived in Hoi An at eight o’clock at night, and my desire for a comfortable bed was quickly realised when we discovered an abundance of very comfortable ensuite hotel rooms priced at US $8.  After indulging in my favourite meal of pizza (I am ashamed to say that I ate rather too much pizza due to the excellence in quality coupled with the temptingly low price of US $2 per person,) and contentedly left the task of exploring the rest of Hoi An until daylight.

The main street of Hoi An is a busy, dusty street crammed with clothes shops and restaurants, and littered with locals attempting to sell anything from pineapples to postcards. I even had somebody approach the table where I was eating breakfast and offer to weigh me for a small charge! I quickly learned that one of the most efficient ways of dispersing unwanted attention is to avoid all eye contact with both the seller and their wares; if you show even the slightest interest in their products, you will be powerless to escape.

Pottery traders

The vast array of clothes and shoes in this small town leaves you spoiled for choice; at a conservative guess, I estimated over two hundred clothes and shoes shops. Each of these shops boasts several manikins sporting samples of the tailor’s work, and an English speaking sales person, who beckoned me inside at the first sign of any interest and offered to adapt any piece of clothing in her store to suit my every whim. When I failed to spot anything that took my fancy, the sales person produced, as if by magic, several copies of the latest English fashion catalogues and magazines. I then found myself hastily seated on a small plastic chair, with the catalogue positioned on a chair in front of me, being shown every fabric in every colour imaginable.

This type of service epitomises the charm of Hoi An. Nothing is too much trouble, and the locals positively ooze friendliness. As is the case when travelling in any part of Asia, a foreign face is impossible to conceal and is immediately associated with wealth. However, there is one subtle aspect that separates Hoi An from many other towns in third world countries, and that it is the atmosphere. Everywhere I looked, I found smiling faces and cheerful waves. Of course, I am not naïve enough to think for one moment that these reactions are not based heavily on the prospect of my spending money in their shops, but the feeling I got from every person I met in Hoi An is that these reactions were not solely based on a selfish desire for cash. The previous year, I spent nine months teaching in Beijing, and had numerous encounters with sales people to use as a comparison. When bargaining for clothes in the cities markets, I was often left with the impression that I was considered a fool for spending the amount of money that I had, even though I became fairly certain throughout my time in the city of a reasonable price that a foreigner could expect to pay. Hoi An proved to be the antithesis of this, with the locals genuinely interested in speaking to you. Capitalism flourished in this tiny town, and the impression I received was that everybody was happy with the deals that they struck. US $25 may seem like a trifling amount of money to an Englishman where this amount of money in England barely covers the cost of a meal for two in a café or a pub, but it is actually a fairly substantial amount of money in a country where US $2 will easily buy food for a family of four in decent restaurant.

Hoi An’s beach

Another important factor that I must emphasise is that these clothes shops are not a glorified front for a sweatshop. Each sales person that I spoke to was running a family business, and so all the profits they made went straight to their families. I developed a great sense of respect for these workers, who have spent time and money studying English to enable them to create and run their own businesses, and have created their one mini family-run production lines.

I spent a great deal of time chatting with one such sales lady, from whom we bought most of our clothes. As this was my second trip to Hoi An, I had already visited several of the clothes shops previously and had remembered one particularly good shop to which I returned. This time, we spent even more money than we had last time, and when we left the city this time, we made sure we stayed in touch with our new “friends.” We felt fairly certain that we had had a profound affect on the family’s fortunes when we returned exactly ten months later and found our sales lady heavily pregnant with the second child that they had longed to have but couldn’t afford, (until we came back to Hoi An and spent more than $600 US in their shop – double the average Vietnamese annual wage!)

Van the tailor with his daughter

At the moment, Hoi An is relatively hidden within in Vietnam as many travellers concentrate their adventures in the two biggest cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city. Unless you travel overland through Vietnam, (a route that is becoming increasingly popular for those with a bit of time on heir hands,) you will miss it. In my opinion, Vietnam as a whole is similar to how I imagine Thailand to have been before the huge influx of tourism that has swamped Bangkok and the southern islands. Much of the countryside is unspoilt as soon as you venture beyond the immediate boundaries of the tourist hotspots, the people are welcoming on the whole, and I didn’t encounter any of the supposedly prolific street crime that Vietnam is so infamous for. Of course, this could have been beginners luck and bad things can happen anywhere, but I believe that Vietnam I well-worth a look if you happen to be travelling through South-East Asia. And if you manage to travel through the country overland, you will have that chance to delve just that little but deeper into the less well-known towns and villages rather than just seeing the main tourist areas. Just make sure you get there quickly!      

Charlotte Turner is a travel writer and teacher from the UK. She has lived in China for 18 months and returned to England in September 2005 to continue her studies.

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