Hoi An is a very popular tourist destination. Historically, it was the port of Fai Fo, and an important, international trading center. The harbor silted up and the trade moved up to Da Nang (Tourane), so Hoi An has the historical feel, without having been important enough to bomb. It really is a beautiful place, though again, you have to take it with a pinch of salt because it is a tourist town.
We went to the first hotel on our travel plan, which of course, was full. We looked at a few other places, and finally went to the Cua Dai, which was gorgeous. It was a French-style place, with black and white floor tiles, an open terrace and rattan furniture. It was a bit on the expensive side, but this was Vietnam, and we felt we could afford it. This is perhaps a bit mean, but I really enjoyed the English version of the hotel rules, part of which I reproduce below:
REGULATION OF CUADAI HOTEL
|1.||Our hotel has only responsibility in guard of precious things which sent at Reception with receipt.|
|2.||When absent, please do not put keys at door. They must be sent Reception bar of the Hotel.|
|6||Equipment, furniture in room if damaged by guets, he/she must compensate folowing present price.|
|7.||Before leaving, please close windows put out electric and water source.|
|8.||Do not take animal, weapon flammable and explosion subtance and bad smelling things into the hotel.|
The next step was to find a restaurant for dinner. We agreed on a seafood restaurant, and parked the van in the center of town. It was raining like crazy that night, and the rain was so strong that it managed to find a minute hole in my umbrella and pour directly down the back of my shirt. The street we had to cross looked flooded, so we took off our sandals and rolled up our trousers. We were ready to cross, when we saw someone coming from the other direction who was up to his chest in water. That seemed a bit much.
Instead, we went to the Mermaid restaurant, which had been on my list because they give Vietnamese cooking lessons. The Mermaid is in the center of Hoi An, and a nice looking place inside. It's more like a French restaurant. It has incandescent lights, which is a rarity, and it's kind of stylish almost unheard of. We chose a table opposite the kitchen so we could see what was going on inside. We ordered some local Hoi An starters, beef with lemongrass, a bean curd dish, and the specialty of the house, which was grilled tuna with turmeric, wrapped in a banana leaf.
The food was good, but the most memorable moment of the evening was when one of the kitchen staff let out a blood curdling scream. We thought something terrible had happened. We couldn't figure it out. No noises, no falling pots, just the scream. Then another scream. The noise, it turned out, came from a thin, toothless woman in her 50's. Hurray! Thailand scored a point in the football match! There was a TV in the kitchen, and everyone was glued to the game. You can't get away from this football stuff, and even if you hate it, you'd better love it. Thailand had beaten Vietnam the week before, and everyone had taken it well. But that was all in the past anyway. Hurray, Thailand!
The food in the Mermaid was good, but in the end I decided to give the cooking lessons a miss. I think it's a great idea that they give cooking lessons in English, but the style is Europeanized. It's great as a first introduction, but I was hoping for something with a bit more Vietnamosity (to coin a phrase), a little bit of insight as to what makes up the Vietnamese taste. I still think the best idea is to follow friends around the kitchen. A shame, since the people at the restaurant were really friendly as we passed the next morning, they recognized us and waved to us on the street.
The next day, we did some touristy things. We went to a silk factory, and saw silkworms, threadmaking and weaving. Hung the driver knew about all kinds of places like this. We had thought this was a tour, but realized later on that it led to a store where they sell silk clothing. My first answer is always no, but I ended up looking at some raw silk shirts which were very nice. Before I knew it, not only had I chosen a shirt, but they offered to sew shirts for the same price as ready-made. So I ended up getting 3 tailor-made, raw silk shirts, though for $9 apiece, you'd be hard-pressed to find them anywhere in the West at 10 times the price. Tailoring is a big industry in Hoi An, and everywhere we went in town we saw workshops. There's also a lot of artisan work, and with the difference in prices between Vietnam and elsewhere, you can see why.
The town was beautiful, we had a great walk around, but I have to say that the food was an utter disappointment. After checking out of our hotel we ate lunch at another tourist restaurant, which was dismal. There was a table of English ladies talking about their hotel, and a straight line of tables with Japanese tourists, with all the women wearing the same floppy sun hat.
When the food came out there were some hairy-looking spring roll things, a flavorless chicken dish and some local dim sum, all of which were appalling. I saw some people eating a fish dish with what I though was shredded papaya. I ordered it, and it turned out to be egg noodles and a tasteless tomato sauce.
The high point of the meal (aside from the dishes being taken away), was the Japanese couple sitting next to us. They were very friendly, and said that many of the Japanese feel that they have roots in Vietnam, this area being one of the places that the Japanese people lived on their way to Japan. I'm not sure this has any basis in fact, but it might explain why there's so much Japanese involvement in Vietnam.
We were really disappointed, and Hung was kind of sorry for bringing us there. He started to realize that we came to Vietnam looking for Vietnamese food, and things went uphill from that moment. On the way out of Hoi An, we stopped at a small hole-in-the-wall cafe with plastic children's chairs. We watched the world go by for a while, and then went bye ourselves.