Hoi An At Night
When the red lanterns are lit and the punting boats drift down the lazy Thu Bon River, Hoi An becomes a totally different city than it is by day. Banh mi bread sellers occupy the corners, bustling markets burst with Buddha statues and kites, pancake cooks sizzle under bar lights, bubbling vats of cao lầu broth beckon foodies to the cookhouses, and the tailors keep going like industrious bees in the backrooms. There's a nocturnal energy pulsing through the UNESCO Old Town when darkness descends. We love to encounter it whenever we come by on our amazing Vietnam Explorer itinerary.
It's 6pm and the sun is already starting to set over An Bang Beach. The yellow-glinting dunes and the bamboo shacks with their stacks of coconuts that pile out from An Bang Village are beginning to glow golden as the sky fades from blue to red. People are gazing out across the South China Sea, others are glugging ice-cold beers and shaking the sand from their hair. The evening is about to take over on the Vietnam coast. It's time to return to the city.
It's just a 20-minute cycle from the beach to the center of UNESCO-tagged Hoi An. I've been making the ride each evening after hopping to An Bang Beach for a swim and a sip on a coconut. It's hardly a chore or a sweaty commute. First, I whiz by the noodle stalls and eclectic restaurants of An Bang Village – Greek gyros and club sandwiches are a staple there, nestled between laundry joints and health-food bars and bakers. Then it's onto the main roads, past the manicured veg gardens of the verdant Tra Que island, its rows of courgettes and lettuces and spring onions dotted with hunched-over ladies in traditional Vietnamese conical hats.
Then I'm whirring through the rice paddies. There are raised cycling paths that crisscross those verdant pockets of crop all around Hoi An. I bump and jostle over them as the light fades, flies and mosquitoes buzzing in my eyes and ears. Next, I enter the town's fringes, welcomed by the neon glow of a karaoke bar, the hubbub of a beer hall and the ramshackle sprawl of Vietnam's ubiquitous haberdashery shops.
The last of the light disappears as I skid into the Hoi An center. I see the shadows start moving in the small alleyways – alleyways are everywhere in this enchanting town. I see the shapes of humans shifting on the walls of darkened cafes – cafes, too, are everywhere in Hoi An. I slide down the streets that pierce through the gabled homes and terracotta-tiled cottages of old Hoi And. They are coming to life with sounds and smells and sights that are different to the ones you encounter in the day. There's a human energy flowing from store to store, a fizzing feeling of real life being lived.
Of course, Hoi An's famous tailors don't go to bed when the sun drops. Industrious seamstresses and half-bent maestros of the sewing machine continue to ply their trade in backrooms. Flickering bar lights are their illumination and the rhythm of the needle is their metronome – a "click-clack" that only ceases when that dress or two-piece is complete. I can see them working as I pass the paint-peeling walls of the center. I wonder if they even know that darkness has arrived.
Down on the banks of the Thu Bon River is where Hoi An's nightlife comes to a head. Plumes of photo-taking tourists pack onto small bridges that arch like petrified dragons over the water. There are bobbing junk boats and punting canoes filled with people who drift like ghosts, backlit by the bright lights of the Hoi An Night Market in the distance. The sounds of sizzling noodles and the calls of hawkers in the bazaar refract off the streams and bounce all around. The flicker of tealights speckles the water itself, like stars twinkling on a black ribbon bound for the South China Sea. People keep igniting them, adding yet another cosmic twinkle to the mirror-like channel in the heart of this enchanting little city.
No part of the night in Hoi An goes by without me thinking of the famous cao lầu. This legendary broth, cooked up with chewy noodles and herbs and all sorts of veg is the delicacy of the city. It's said to be at its best when made with water drawn from a local well in Hoi An itself. I doubt that's possible for all the servings I see being patted down on the tables of the restaurants this evening, but the twisting scents of fresh mint and broiling stock is enough to tickle my taste buds.
Minutes later I'm sitting on a flimsy plastic stool just meters from the waterside. I'm managing to convey that I don't eat meat to the wide-eyed chef. She's happy to make me a cao lầu an chay – vegetarian. It doesn't take long to rustle up and when it comes it's wonderful. A symphony of gluttonous rice noodles and steaming veg broth, fresh mint leaves and coriander, topped with countless herbs and stalks, all packed with cut onions and awash with bobbing beansprouts.
It's a sort of chaotic dish, one that mirrors the hectic happenings of Hoi An city in the night. Amid this mismatch of people, streaming through the tight-knit blocks, past lantern-lit cafes and into enticing noodle cookhouses, it feels like the right thing to eat. A chilled beer for less than $0.30 seems like the perfect accompaniment, too – it would be rude not to, right?
Now I'm heading across to the night market. It strings along the central drag of a small islet on the Thu Bon River. I stride over darkened bridges to get there, and weave between pockets of people catching selfies, haggling over bunches of chop sticks and flicking through food menus in front of charming little kitchens, their hopeful chefs just visible through the haze of wok-issuing steam somewhere behind.
The lanterns lead the way in Hoi An Night Market. They decorate the roofs and the stalls and the cafes and every other nook and cranny of the street where the bazaar unfolds. Haggling is done in the shade of a paper light, window shopping in the hue of a pink-coloured nebula. It all begins with stacks of jade-carved Buddha figurines, goes through stalls brimming with bamboo-woven fridge magnets, past knife-toting banh mi (baguette) makers, and into the ubiquitous mix of sweet-smelling pancake stalls where bananas dangle like a tiara above the signage.
Calls and shouts come from every angle. The snap of photos – Hoi An Night Market is a photographer's dream – clicks left, right and center. People don conical hats and argue over the price of painted rice bowls. I move through, glimpsing and glancing and wallowing in the electric energy of it all. At the end of the night market road is a cluster restaurants and taverns, brimming with people like everywhere else in night-time Hoi An. There are lines of fishing boats, silhouetted now against the riverside and the water, bobbing lightly in the current.
I find a space in one of the bars that are packed like sardines, contorted into rows, around the main drag of the night market. It's a people-watching haven. The beers (uber-cheap beers, mind you) flow and the human montage of hawkers and pancake munchers, of lantern carriers and purring scooters continues on as if choreographed. I crack a bottle and kick back, the hectic haze of Hoi An rising and falling, pulsing and beating all around me. This city might be centuries old but it sure doesn't feel like it right now.
I decide to move away and see the backstreets of old Hoi An at night. I dust off the beer and dodge the lantern-lit touts and find myself in a less-busy alleyway with just a drooling labrador and some swaying washing lines. A couple of turns, left, right, left, right, and I'm as lost as I wanted to be. I squeeze out a few badly pronounced xin chào "hellos" to the locals I pass. I think they think I want directions back to the market and they start flailing hands, half-laughing as I pass and delve deeper.
Eventually, I emerge onto a wider lane where the dragon-topped cottages that Hoi An is famous for line the streets. I've managed to hop back over the river and bypass the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge, which I can see poking above the gabled roofs just down the road. In front is a temple, incense twisting and turning in its alcoves. Next to me is a painter, artfully stroking a big black brush across a paper-white canvass. A family sits in a terrace sipping tea from see-through cups. They slap cards, or is it dominos? Bikes click past sometimes, whizzing with meaning towards the fray of the night-time city from where I've come.
Hoi An is just one of the amazing places we visit on our once-in-a-lifetime Vietnam Explorer trip. Lasting 19 days from start to finish, it will take you on an odyssey through the backbone of Indochina. You'll sip coffee in Da Lat and wander the fizzing streets of Ho Chi Minh City. You'll check Ha Long Bay from the bucket list and hike between the cascading rice paddies of Sa Pa up in the mountains. In total, you'll get two nights in Hoi An. You can choose to delve into its bustling night market and taste noodle broths by the river, or you can just chill by the pool.
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