Weaving through Vietnam's Hoi An

Dec 29, 2012- If your idea of a perfect vacation is to whiz through several locales, taking in the view from an air-conditioned bus, then Vietnam’s Hoi An is probably not for you. But if you like to amble through cobblestoned streets and cycle in the countryside, then come along for the ride.

Outdoor stage in Hoi An

WITH greasy juices running down my chin as I slurp up the remaining mouthfuls of my caolak noodles, I gaze at my new friend and say glassy-eyed, “Vinh, you’re my Hoi An Tripadvisor.”

Vinh has just brought me to yet another secret find, a hole-in-the-wall cafĂ© to sample some of Hoi An’s famous noodles. Brought me as in he’s cycling ahead of me while I regain my not-entirely-forgotten bicycle skills.

Over the next few days that I spend in Hoi An, Vinh patiently answers all my questions, enthusiastically recommends restaurants and tirelessly seeks out photo opportunities that I might like.

Eschewing more conventional modes of transport, he has managed to convince me that the best way to experience Hoi An is on two wheels. Not only would I cover more ground than if I were walking, but I’d also manage to catch a breeze. As I cycle through its ancient streets that are wonderfully devoid of cars and take in the sights, I can’t agree more.

Hoi An is a town made for exploring. Wander through little alleys and come upon tiny galleries and cafes. Weave through pathways in the market and be entranced by tiny ducklings in a basket in one corner, and be equally amazed by a woman having her eyebrows professionally plucked in another.

What can I say about the cuisine in Hoi An that hasn’t already been oohed and aahed over by food bloggers?

I dutifully make the rounds of the restaurants that are recommended and, yes, they are all sublime.

Providing a welcome respite from the midday heat is Secret Garden, tucked in an alley away from the main thoroughfare. Going to the famous Morning Glory has me queuing up for a table. The much better idea, as Vinh suggests, is a visit to Miss Vy’s older establishment, Mermaid, which is quieter while presenting pretty much the same menu.

Cruising at 5km/h

Cu lao Cham Island in Hoi An Town

It is Vinh who convinces me to spend half a day on one of their cycling tours. When I look at the logo of the company, Love of Life Cycling Tours, with its flying pink heart, I have an inkling that this will be a fun adventure. And it is, even though we start off at daybreak. Leading the way is Hang (as in hanger, he proclaims with a grin!).

It’s a visit to the fish market which sees teeming groups of women haggling over the catch of the day. In fact, I only see women, so I guess while the fishing is left to the menfolk, women are in charge of the commerce.

After a quick breakfast, we take to the countryside surrounding Hoi An, with its picturesque riverine landscape. As the sun rises higher, we cycle past padi fields with docile buffaloes lounging in the shade and verdant vegetable gardens.

Hang calls out descriptions such as “Mangoes! Bougainvilleas!”, to which I answer, “I know. I’ve seen them before.” But a little plant piques my interest and I get down to examine it closer when Hang explains that it’s sesame.

I open up a pod to have a closer look at the minuscule seeds, and also have a whiff of lemon verbena. I love that the Vietnamese treat herbs like basil and mint like vegetables in their cooking.

Sensing that my energy is flagging, Hang leads the way to An Bang Beach, where we relax over cold drinks and peanuts. I take in the view of the nearby Cham islands and Marble Mountain, and marvel at the beauty all around me, but I am disconcerted by the sight of a couple of puppies being transported to the nearby market.

I am told that the Vietnamese still like their dog meat and that puts a momentary damper on my day.

We continue our ride to a jetty where we load our bikes onto a boat and take a leisurely cruise back to Hoi An. I am amazed when told that we have covered about 12km. For lunch, I am led to a private home where a veritable feast awaits.

I have spring rolls and freshly made pancakes accompanied by fresh herbs and a piquant sesame sauce to die for.

I stuff my face happily, only to find out that they are merely starters, because out comes fried fish, vegetables and rice, followed by pineapple cake and jasmine tea. I am entranced that I get to dine at a private residence rather than a restaurant, as Hang explains that this is a source of revenue for housewives as well.

When the lady of the house brings out wooden tubs and proceeds to fill them with hot water and herbs, I joke that it would be great to have a foot massage to ease my aching muscles. But lo and behold, that is exactly what she proceeds to give me.

What an exquisite finish to cap my adventure on wheels!

Suits me just fine

There are hundreds of tailors dotted throughout town, many of them coming highly recommended. Hoi An is a town of tailors and shoemakers, it would seem, and one can have bespoke suits and shoes.

When I ask my Hoi An Tripadvisor about having a suit tailored, he, of course, leads me ... right next door to Five Seasons. The ever-so-sweet Miss Rose accedes to my every request, and painstakingly presents me with a well-made suit that is very reasonably priced within 24 hours.

When an itinerant hawker passing by tries to overcharge me for some fruits, she chides him, saying that “we shouldn’t take advantage of visitors like that.”

Vinh insists that I keep my bicycle, even though my tour with Love of Life Bicycle Tours has ended and I’ve paid up.

“Keep the bike. You can return it tomorrow,” he says as he waves me off on another jaunt. Discovering that I have a penchant for seafood, he indicates a restaurant called Song Thu that’s off my little map. I follow his directions along quiet streets and private homes, thinking that I must be mistaken, but bright lights lead me on to the restaurant. What it lacks in ambience, it makes up for in its menu, and I thoroughly enjoy a seafood meal that’s very affordably priced.

On my final night, Vinh suggests that I bike to Cao Dai on the coast, despite Hang having claimed earlier that it’s not very clean. “Keep the bike. Return it tomorrow,” he waves me off yet again.

I rather enjoy the 4km ride there, especially since the sight of a beautiful rainbow on the horizon greets me after some earlier showers. The entire stretch of beach in Cao Dai is lined with seafood restaurants. The one that Vinh recommends is patronised only by locals and serves up some of the freshest crab and squid I’ve had. Nothing beats a seafood meal washed down by cold beer while watching the sun go down.

I watch little kids as they frolic on the beach, and a company party making merry alongside my table.

As I cycle back, the unlit street is pitch black, making me worry a little for my safety. But somehow, just as in other parts of Vietnam, the rest of the traffic somehow seems to flow around me, and unlike other Vietnamese cities, nobody honks at me. Nearing town, I waver, wondering which way to go, but old crones sitting at street corners wave cheerfully and point me in the right direction.

I’m feeling more and more like I belong here, and can see myself making another visit soon to this ancient part of the country. In fact, I can’t wait till I come back.