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Hoi An Travel Guide

No, You’re Mistaking This Gorgeous City With Somewhere Else

PHOTO: Jeremy Tarr

While waiting for a bespoke jacket to be made, I wander through a city unheard of by many, but on the precipice of the mainstream bucket list.

About a week before I left for Southeast Asia, I told somebody that I was headed straight to Hoi An. This person cocked their head and brusquely asked me, “Where?” I told them again where I was going: Hoi An. But clarified that it’s a city in Vietnam. “Oh!” they said. “You mean you’re going to Hanoi!”

No! These are different cities. But, somehow, people constantly seemed confused when I told them I was headed to Hoi An—they seemed to act as though I was mistaken or pronounced it wrong. But, let me be clear: Hoi An is Hoi An. Hanoi is Hanoi. And Hoi An is not Hanoi. I wasn’t going to Hanoi in the north of Vietnam. Hoi An is also not Ho Chi Minh City. I was not going there, which is in the south. I was going to the middle. To Hoi An. I meant what I said. But, even to some Hoi An locals, the fact that I was only going to Hoi An and eschewing more popular tourist spots seemed strange. When I told this to a bartender in Hoi An, she just looked at me like I was an escaped lunatic and in a voice soaking with confusion said only, “Why?” OK, good question. There were a few reasons. But the main one: I wanted a bespoke jacket.

The Jacket in Question

Hoi An is fast becoming a mecca for quick, handmade, as-you-like-it threads—catching up with the likes of Bangkok and Hong Kong. And it’s cheap. Oh so cheap. And in this bespoke mecca, I went to mecca’s mecca: Yaly Couture. It’s one of more than 200 bespoke tailors scattered throughout the old quarter.

I selected a blue-and-gray checker-patterned wool-and-cashmere number with a pink paisley lining—I wanted it be subtly dandified. The salesclerk measured me with a ruler and then shuffled me into a small room for a full-body scan to, as she said, “get everything just right.” The room had a series of rig-mounted cameras and a green-screen. The clerk smiled as she gave me a pair of cheap black underwear and told me to strip down and put them on. She was polite but stern, so, like a scared soldier to an R. Lee Ermey drill sergeant, I did exactly as I was told. Then came more instructions: hold your arms like this, hold still, now hold them like this, hold still. The cameras scurried up and down, snapping my scrawny, pale body along the way. I have a lot of hang-ups (see here, here, and here) and I’ll admit, public nudity is definitely among them. I’m even more hung up on committing my Mr. Burns body to digital celluloid, but, hey, I came all this way and wanted my jacket to look good.

That scan, I’m told, will sit in their records for the next two years in the event that I want to order anything online (or that one of my enemies wishes to hack in and embarrass me, whichever comes first). In the meantime, my measurements and fabric were delivered to an army of tailors: Yaly employs 500 of them. My particular battalion comprised of five: one for the sleeves, a second the body, a third the lapel, another the lining, and one more for assembly. It would be delivered to my hotel, the Four Season The Nam Hai, on Tuesday night, only 36 hours later. The countdown clock was on.

 

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Hoi An_Yaly
Yaly Couture’s French colonial exterior.Jeremy Tarr

 

36 Hours ’til Jacket-Time

I stepped outside Yaly’s fading yellow French colonial building onto Nguyen Duy Hieu Street, a surprisingly busy thoroughfare already crowded with tourists—mostly from throughout Asia (there are over 10 flights a day from Seoul), but there were quite a few Europeans, too. Together, they jockeyed their way around speeding motorbikes. It didn’t used to be like this. The tailors, the throngs of happy foreigners. It’s been a slow march. Sure, the legacy of textile workers goes back a long way. After all, Hoi An was a major port city for centuries, sitting along Asian and European trade routes. Until, that is, the French showed up like they owned the damn place and took over the country. However, they favored Da Nang, just to the north, and slowly drained Hoi An of finance until it was but a sad little nothing. It was practically forgotten by the time the Americans came and blew the country to hell.

And, yet, it survived the Vietnam War, somehow almost completely intact. It’s remarkable—some say, even miraculous—considering the devastation to the region: Hue, the ancient city 75 miles north, lost 40% of its buildings to the war. If you ask around how Hoi An survived, you’ll hear a lot of rumors. Some say the city was a so-called “death zone,” a hiding place for the Viet Cong with no easy in and no easy out—just better to leave it alone than risk a slaughter. Others whispered that the ferocious Blue Dragons, South Korea’s stealth marines, patrolled its waters, providing enough fear to caution any from tempting fate. The more altruistic gossip will have you believe the Americans avoided it to preserve the cultural heritage of the city. None of this is true.

Jeremy Tarr

To learn the truth, I called up Dr. Robert K. Brigham, a professor at Vassar who lectures on U.S. foreign policy, with an emphasis on the Vietnam War. He’s published many works on the subject, including Reckless: Henry Kissinger and the Tragedy of Vietnam and Argument Without End: In Search of Answers to the Vietnam Tragedy, which he co-wrote with Robert McNamara, Kennedy and Johnson’s defense secretary.

“There’s this kind of myth that’s circulated for the last 40 or 50 years that Hoi An was the only town [in Vietnam] that wasn’t bombed,” he tells me. “Entirely not true. Lots of towns weren’t bombed. Bombing just to hit things wasn’t U.S. policy despite the high number of tonnage that was used.”

But, the areas surrounding Hoi An were a hotbed of Viet Cong activity. “Some of the most-fierce bombing of the war took place very close to Hoi An. But the town itself, Hoi An proper, really didn’t have a lot of strategic value to it.”

It was, in a sense, according to Dr. Brigham, kind of a backwater. But, from 1965 onward, it became a hub for refugees fleeing the countryside. NGOs set up shop alongside the USAID. And those living there “just tried the best they could to survive.”

After the war, as the smoke of napalm finally, permanently lifted in the provinces surrounding this ancient city and the charred earth turned green again, a Polish architect named Kazimierz Kwiatkowski wandered through. He was heeding UNESCO’s plea to rescue the architecture of a bygone yesteryear. Over the next 17 years, until his death in 1997, he brought this fading city back to life. Today, he’s hailed as something of a national hero—there’s even a monument to him on Tran Phu Street. And, now, after the resurrection, this: tourists. Thousands of them.

Jeremy Tarr

 

It makes sense. Here, the old ways and the new collide, all in a perfectly preserved technicolor recollection. During the morning hours, cars and motorbikes are banned from the narrow streets that comprise the old-town innards of Hoi An. The smell of exhaust dissipates. Instead, the fragrance of sandalwood and cinnamon perfume the air, wafting from the burning incense at every shop-keep’s doorstep—it’s said the aroma will beckon homeless ghosts, who will bestow these stores with good fortune. Elderly women hover over their goods in the central market, many chewing betel, the addictive psychoactive leaves that turn their mouths blood-red. In the old days, it was used not only as a drug, but as rouge. Some of them are wearing a nón lá, the conical straw hats. But it’s not just locals who wear that hat. Tourists appropriate them, posing in front of the buildings and, sometimes, the people. I saw an old man in a nón lá sitting on a stoop. He had long white hair and a long white mustache and a long white beard and unknown to him, some happy idiot Westerner stood smiling, posing behind him, while her friend snapped his unsuspecting photo. There’s a lot of inconsiderate tourist behavior here. And it sucks.

When night falls, the crowds get worse. The city is famous for its lanterns. Once upon a time, they were lit only on the occasion of the new or the full moon. Now, to appease the tourists, it’s every single night. Buses pull up along the Thu Bon River, which gorgeously sparkles from hundreds of flickering lights floating in colorful paper-boats, and from these buses, the hordes descend, selfie sticks in hand, their phones adding to the lantern glow.

I’m not going to lie to you—it’s annoying. But, this town is—somehow—worth the annoyance. It’s worth putting up with an invasion of sightseers. Because it’s worthy of the adoration. It’s that damn charming. That damn beautiful.

28 Hours ’til Jacket-Time

Only yesterday, I’d stumbled out of the Da Nang Airport into the humidity and almost immediately, the mosquitos started drinking from my veins. I looked around. During the war, this airport used to be the American Air Base—it acted as the first point of entry for thousands and thousands of combat troops, the first of which arrived here in 1965. The DMZ between North and South Vietnam was only a little more than 100 miles away, just north of Hue at the mouth of the Ben Hai River. I headed east toward the sea in a taxi that carefully zigzagged through traffic like a tailor hand-stitching chiffon. Finally, we turned south onto a long road with many names.

Let’s talk about this 23-mile road for a minute. It originates in the northeast of Da Nang, where the Monkey Mountain of Tho Quang Peninsula rises from the sea. It’s here that the 220-foot tall Lady Buddha statue lords over all—she’s the largest Buddha statue in the whole country. And, as the name of the mountain here implies, there are monkeys—namely, the elusive little red-shanked douc, an orange-faced, crimson-legged tree-dweller. Up here in the peninsula, the road is called Hoang Sa, but by the time it reaches My Khe Beach, it’s called Vo Nguyen Giap. Fifty years ago, soldiers nicknamed this part of the shore China Beach; it’s where they took their R&R (and for all you diehard Dana Delaney fans out there, if you happen to exist, ABC had a Vietnam War drama in the ’80s that she starred in called China Beach). But, gone are the days of Dana Delaney—now it’s lined with resorts and beach bars.

 

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Hoi An_Lady Buddha
1. The Marble Mountains.Big Pearl/Shutterstock; 2. The giant Lady Buddha in the Monkey Mountain.Saigoneer/Shutterstock

 

The road changes names again to Truong Sa when it hits the Marble Mountains. There are five of these jagged peaks that jut out suddenly from the flat ground like buried bodies clawing their way to freedom. It used to be that these mountains were excavated for—you guessed it—marble. Artisans set up shop at the base of these hills and built statues and shrines. Today, the mining has stopped but the artisans remain—they’re everywhere, selling their wares. At the largest of the five mountains, Thuy Son, there are 156 steps that lead to a complex of grottoes and temples (if you’re lazy, there’s an elevator). The Viet Cong hid in these caves, among the ancient statues carved directly from mountain walls. They went undetected for years but, eventually, the Americans got wise. Now, the sun shines through blasted holes, lighting up solemn Buddhas.

South of the marble touters, where Da Nang ends and Quang Nam Province begins—it’s in this province that Hoi An sits—the road abruptly changes names again to Lac Long Quan. Now, the name finally sticks and remains constant all the way until the road ends in the serpentine tributaries and water-bison-plowed paddy fields surrounding the Thu Bon River. And all along this 10.7-mile coastal stretch from the Marble Mountains until it abruptly ends, the ocean is obstructed by construction—plot after plot of land is walled off and on these walls are plastered advertisements of what’s to come. Resorts. Lots of them. If you think Hoi An is crowded now, just wait five years when these are all open for business. But even then, the jewel of them all, will remain—the Four Seasons The Nam Hai, my destination. In addition to the jacket, this was another reason I was here. I’d seen photos of this hotel online. And these photos, like pixel-made sirens, called to me.

Reto Guntli/Four Seasons

It’s common for people to hole up here at the Four Seasons while waiting for a wardrobe to be constructed. They come in from all over the globe, tired of their closet and ready to start anew. They head off to Yaly and buy everything to fit their needs—suits, shirts, trousers, dresses, eveningwear, everything. Yaly can do it all. And then they wile away their days, sometimes for a week or more, waiting. Here. In this paradise. And now I was one of them.

The hotel opened in 2006 as simply the Nam Hai. Four Seasons came in a decade later. Behind great grand gates this calm haven shelters any who are fatigued from the chaos outside. From the never-ending crisscross of the motorcycles, the aroma of exhaust and incense, the smiling call of market vendors—all the wondrous goodness, the secret sauce that makes Vietnam so magical and yet, so overwhelming. Sometimes you just need the restorative magic of tranquility.

Every room is a private bungalow and there are 100 of them—each with views of the seas. The smallest of them is certainly bigger than a Los Angeles apartment. Each is constructed over two levels, with the lowest housing a seating area and a patio with direct beach access. Above it, surrounded by a mosquito net, is an intricately-carved bed exquisite enough for a Champa emperor. In the middle of the bungalow, next to a writing desk, is an exposed bathtub—it’ll make you conjure up Byronic daydreams. Imagine for a second a quill-jotting writer penning love poems while an exhausted and very clean lover sits idly in a tub. Practical? Absolutely not. Romantic? Oh, hell yeah. And in the evening, it’s even more so. An attendant comes by to light the candles, which can burn until morning like an anachronistic nightlight.

 

1. A bed fit for a Champa emperor.Ken Seet/Four Seasons; 2. The spa on the lagoon.Ken Seet/Four Seasons

 

When I returned to the hotel after my morning in Hoi An, I followed in the footsteps of the exquisitely well-to-do who waited idly for their wares: I booked myself a massage. The masseuse took me to an airy room on the shore of a lagoon, furnished with a large daybed and a full bathtub. I was told to strip down. Again. This was turning into exposure therapy. At this rate, by tomorrow, I’d be streaking through Da Nang. For now, my command was to get in the tub for 30 minutes. It was filled with flower petals and lemongrass. Toss in the ginger, the coriander, the fish sauce and it’d be a pretty nice pho. Then came the tenderizing—the hour-long massage. The pampering continued because—and this may be one of the most gloriously bougie phrases in the English language—tonight was Lobster Night at the Four Seasons. A multi-course extravaganza of lobster dish after lobster dish from amuse-bouche all the way to dessert (lobster-infused ice cream, which was shockingly refreshing).

Now, tenderized, lobster-stuffed, surrounded by candlelight, listening to the serenade of the mosquitos, and, most importantly, abundantly happy, I closed out the day.

12 Hours ’til Jacket-Time

No doubt inspired by the lobster, the next morning I took my pale Mr. Burns body out to the Nam Hai’s beach and, now used to stripping down, laid out in the muggy sun; over the course of three hours and four Tiger Beers, I acquired a radioactive red glow.

In the times of the war, there had been bombing just south of this stretch of seaside, down at An Bang Beach—there’s still a bunker there and, as recently as 2017, unexploded shells have been found. As Dr. Brigham told me, “All around Hoi An, like a perfect ring, it was incredibly deadly.” Now, it’s luxury sunbathers, umbrella-garnished drinks in hand. They come from everywhere. In the chairs closest to me were a couple from France, beyond them, I heard the harsh lilting tones of Russian and then suddenly, from behind, Japanese wafted into my ears. It was a United Nations of peacefulness. It was hard to believe that not so long ago, this sand flew sky-high, punctured by explosions.

 

1.Ken Seet/Four Seasons; 2.Markus Gortz/Four Seasons

 

I dropped like a bomb into one of the hotel’s two pools for a lap and then returned to my room to rinse off in my own private outdoor shower. I then left the calm serenity of the hotel and returned to the madcap exuberance of the ancient town of Hoi An, this time for a quick fitting at Yaly. I tried it on: things were looking good with only hours to go.

Outside, I wandered through the streets that, at this hour, were still off-limits for car or motorbike, but instead were populated by uniformed schoolchildren, clipboards in hand, approaching foreigners and asking if they’d converse with them in English. It was part of their language lesson. And it was surprisingly specific. A girl about seven or eight asked me whether or not I recycle, how often I recycle, and what my recommendations were to save the planet from climate change. According to her teacher, learning English is a priority. Education is a priority. It supports growth. Throughout the region, there’s a push for growth—growth in education, growth in economy, growth in trade, growth in tourism. Growth is everywhere. And it’s been working. Da Nang saw double-digit GDP growth for a decade until 2012 and it’s continued in the 7% range. Every single goal they’ve set for reduction of poverty has been met, sometimes ahead of schedule. And the area is safe—Hoi An’s crime rate is 70% less than Da Nang’s, which is 40% less than Hanoi’s, which is 33% less than Los Angeles. Of course, this has all spurred tourism: 5 million showed up in 2018, 50% over the previous year.

Jeremy Tarr

As the day wore on, the crowds grew. And, again, caught in the throngs, I desperately sought solace. I found it at Tadioto, a hidden bar down a long corridor behind a Japanese restaurant. The bartenders looked to be teenagers with uneasy hands, but they introduced me to an excellent Vietnamese gin called Song Cai, so they’re aces in my book. One of them, a young lady, asked where I was traveling to. And it’s to her that I admitted I was only hanging out here in Hoi An, and it was she who looked at me like I was an escaped lunatic and in a voice soaking with confusion said only, “Why?” She was surprised. Shocked that it’s this town—of all the towns in this country, in all the countries in this world—that it’s this town that I’d specifically set out for.

I sat there, question in my mind, my skin burning like prodded embers and my blood stirred into a cocktail for mosquitos, but damn—I was happy here. Dr. Brigham has been returning to this city regularly since he first visited in 1989, and now, all these years later, it’s still one of his favorites in the country. “When you shut your eyes,” he told me, “and you think about what you would like to see a country look like after the War, it’s Hoi An. It’s kind of a romanticized, idealized version of Vietnam.”

He’s right. From the water buffalo who tend the soaking fields on the outskirts that surround the long road from Da Nang to the ever-glowing lanterns that flutter like clouds in the sky over every street, Hoi An lives up to the fantasy of quintessential Vietnam. So, when asked why I came to Hoi An, I turned over a few reasons in my mind. The jacket was certainly one. The Four Seasons was certainly another. But, ultimately, though I love a good jacket and I love a good hotel, I told the teenage bartenders of Tadioto the most basic, truthful, and accurate of reasons. “This,” I said to them in an intoxicated pronouncement, “is a just good town.”

Jacket-Time!

At last, I got it. The jacket fits as though it were my own skin. It’s everything I could have dreamed. And now, as happens with the first realization of pleasure that comes from anything oh-so-good, I want more. I’m hooked—to that jacket, to that city. I want—need!—to return and do as the wealthy do: check-in to the Four Seasons with an empty suitcase in hand for a solid week, all while the Yaly army constructs my entire wardrobe.

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