Are we travelers allowed to downright dislike like a place? And do we dare to say it out loud when everybody else loves it?
I didn’t like Vietnam. There I said it, judge away. But while you judge me I will have you know that nobody was more upset about this feeling than me. I wanted to come to Vietnam and love it; the country, the history, the people, and the landscapes – what was not to love? But when I got there I just felt disappointed. Saigon was loud and rainy with the most impossible streets to cross but at the same time devoid of the charm that other Asian cities like Bangkok have. The coastline was nice, but couldn’t measure up to Thailand and the stunning beauty of Halong Bay couldn’t make up for the shortcomings of the rest.
After having come from Cambodia, the palaces we saw seemed measly compared to the splendor of Angkor Wat and the people reserved, almost cold. I had never before felt language barrier to such an extent and I couldn’t get anywhere with that famed ‘a smile will open doors’ policy. They say that people in the north of Vietnam are a lot more open and friendly than people in the south – or was it the other way around? Honestly, I couldn’t tell a difference, I felt lost and isolated everywhere.
That trip was three years ago and sometimes I wonder if writing about a place or an experience so much later is a problem. Maybe I’m being unjust to Vietnam. Who am I to say now I didn’t like it if I cannot even remember all the details. Do I remember how the streets of Hanoi smelled? I don’t. Or the chilling feeling upon entering the Chu Chi Tunnels? Not really, I know it was chilling, but I cannot feel it anymore. And what was my mood watching the sunrise over the beach in Nah Trang? There are pictures of me eating macarons for breakfast, so it couldn’t have been too bad, but I can’t tell you if I enjoyed them.
So yes, much gets lost, but maybe that’s alright. Maybe some memories need to get lost so we can save space for the important things to remember. For Vietnam that one important thing, that bright and shining star I remember vividly was Hội An, the city that made up for everything I didn’t like about the country.
Located right on the coast of the South Chinese Sea this town was an important trading port for many centuries. Its old part is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site which basically means you are walking around in a real life, working museum. If you don’t like museums, fear not, you are still in a full-fledged town and no, you don’t need to keep your voices down either.
For me, it was love at first sight: friendly, quaint, and picturesque. It felt like an Asian version of Amsterdam with its canals, bicycles, and narrow lanes. Yes, there were many tourists, but here I was gladly one of them. And I remember everything! I remember my excitement of eating French pastry for the first time in weeks. I was at a café with my friend Lucy and we both ordered two tarts each: chocolate and some kind of fruit with vanilla cream. I also remember that I felt really sick afterward, my stomach at this point demanded bún chả not custard.
I recall small sunny streets and yellow houses. Bundles of cables wound around trees and crumbling balustrades that somehow managed to look more appealing than anywhere else that has aboveground electricity.
The whole town felt like a beautiful film set. Magical hands from the art department had scrubbed the shine away to make it look more authentic yet left it artfully arranged for a perfect frame. There was music playing from speakers, and probably some propaganda too, and I remember Celine Dion’s voice, not my favorite but somehow fitting, making me part of this film. Bicycles, of course, and lanterns, souvenir shops, and local markets. I saw chickens kept under upturned baskets for the first time and many marigolds. People were wearing typical Vietnamese conical hats everywhere, a normal sight in Vietnam but on this film set of a city it seemed even more right.
Mind you, there was nothing artificial about Hội An, the whole town was just very picture perfect in its derelict charm.
The food was the best, simply because it was served in places called The Mermaid Restaurant and the dishes had names like White Roses in addition to being delicious. And while the pastries didn’t agree with me I appreciated that there was a place to have some decent Eggs Benedict, a welcome change from pho with pig’s feet for breakfast.
In the dark, the setting became even more magical. Lanterns were lit and found a match in their reflections on the dark water. We rode on a wooden barge and I remember despite all the beauty around me how scared I was as we had overloaded the little boat by quite a few passengers. Needless to say, the Titanic soundtrack still playing in the background didn’t help though it was fitting to the whole atmosphere. We rode back and forth on the canal, festivities around us, and me holding on so tight I may have gotten a splinter or two. I only let go to lit my own lantern to make a wish and slid it in the water where it drifted into darkness with all the other lanterns – in order for the wish to come true you gotta let it go.
Maybe you need to let an experience go too in order to know what is important in the end. They don’t say the devil is in the details for nothing. If you’d remember everything, if all is equally important, there would be no point to share a story about pastries, lanterns, and the Titanic soundtrack and that you definitely need to visit Vietnam just so you can go to Hội An and make a wish.
Check out Things to do in Hoi An from my friend Hannah for more information on how to spend a view days here beyond pastries!