City of Lanterns

Lunar New Year is a major holiday in Vietnam. Here it’s known as Tét, and it’s probably the most important celebration to the Vietnamese people. Many locals travel to see family or close up shop to spend time with family. Knowing this and together with an inherited fear of “everything-is-booked-we’ll-never-find-a-place-it’s-the-new-year-it’s-going-to-be-crazy-challenging-to-travel” (thanks Dad), we felt we needed to find a place to lay low for a few days. Hoi An was the perfect place because it wasn’t chaotic like Hanoi but it also wasn’t so rural that nothing would be open.

Hoi An is a (you guessed it) UNESCO World Heritage Site championed for being a well-preserved example of an old port town. It’s a melting pot of Vietnamese, Japanese, and European architecture and history. A ticket to Ancient Town will grant you access to some cool historical sites like old homes and assembly halls. Two homes you can visit are still active, meaning the family still lives there, and are impeccably preserved. Tan Ky is one of these homes, and it’s been lovingly maintained by the same family for over 8 generations. It’s an exquisite blend of Japanese and Chinese architecture and is a home built with purpose. The open courtyard in the center of the home allows light in, provides ventilation, collects rainwater, and provides drainage. Both homes have grated doors in the center of the second story floor, specifically for raising furniture during flooding season.

Backdoor brag: my Pixel allows me to create photospheres, check them out here, including one of Tan Ky.

During the day, Hoi An is relatively quiet. Many shops, restaurants, and tailors (Hoi An specialty craft) were closed for Tét, so there wasn’t much to do during the day. Instead of circling town a million times a day, we spent a day at An Bang beach and spent time at our hotel’s pool. When we weren’t enjoying every moment of not having a job and lounging in the sun, we were busy doing our other favorite activity…eating!

Traveler’s tip: Eat what’s famous wherever you are. Hoi An is well known for unique street food and we devoured it all:

  • Cao lầu – Hoi An’s most famous dish. The unique taste and texture are said to derive from a special well found only in Hoi An, hence why you can only find it and eat it here. You can read more about how cao lầu is made here. I ate this dish every chance I got. #bodybypasta
  • Banh mi – Hoi An isn’t on the map because of banh mi but there is a restaurant here made famous by Anthony Bourdain. We ate there, it was stupid cheap, and amazing. This place has a reputation of serving some of the best banh mi in the world, yet we saw a woman order three CHEESE AND ONION sandwiches. AND she tried to split the $5 check. The horror…
  • Bánh bao bánh vạc – aka white rose, a shrimp dumpling bunched up to look like a rose. It’s #famous because one family in Hoi An makes it and supplies the restaurants. Their recipe is kept a secret.
  • Mango cake – no mango involved. It’s like a little mochi, sugar and sticky rice on the outside with peanuts and sesame seeds on the inside. Mango Cake Lady was difficult to find because she was always on the move, so naturally, we bought a bunch when we could find her.
  • Bánh xèo – aka sizzling pancake, aka Vietnamese pizza. The filling is different with each place and vendor but usually consists of pork, shrimp, green onion, cheese, mayo, hot sauce, sometimes hot dogs…it’s so good. So good.
  • and many more snacks like fried banana, coconut cakes, fried hot dogs, and pork on a stick.

In an attempt to burn off all the delicious calories we ate, we walked around the it place, the center of all activity: Ancient Town. Unlike Vegas which is obnoxiously “on” 24/7, A-Town comes alive only at night. The who’s who of Hoi An come to Ancient Town to stroll along the water, visit the night market, drink at a Mr. Bean bar, or sit and watch the boats go by.

Go outside they said, it’ll be fun they said

It was a mob scene every night when we made the short walk to A-Town because it’s Tét. Not only are busloads of Japanese and Korean tourists visiting, but Tét means a million Vietnamese are also visiting. At one point we got caught in a traffic jam while trying to cross a busy intersection. Just the two of us crammed with motorbikes, cars, and other humans. You couldn’t walk two feet without being run over or run down by the locusts that are the bus tourists. Despite our grumbling, every night when we emerged from the last alleyway onto the waterfront, we were left breathless. The sea of annoyance parted and pure enchantment was revealed.

Hoi An is known for its lanterns and all of A-Town is covered with them. Every nook and cranny, every boat, anywhere a speck of a lantern can fit, there was one.

Every night we would walk the same path, over the bridge, eat our way through the night market, head out around the water, and eventually loop around and head back to our hotel. Each lap we tried a new cheesy tourist attraction like taking a boat ride or dropping a lantern into the water. I came this close to buying a light up rabbit ear headband.

Most nights also had big Tét celebrations with fireworks, a big stage with live music, and a Lunar New Year parade.

A giant fair was also erected across the river complete with games, live music, and of course, more food. Carnival games are different here than in the U.S. To start, they are less sophisticated (but just as fun). One game involved throwing homemade darts (darts with chicken feathers taped to it) at small balloons. In another game, piles of prizes were grouped into a grid and a player would throw a small bin at the piles. You won the prizes if your bin landed and covered the whole pile. The best game we saw consisted of a player throwing knife darts at a corkboard. Yes, knives with feathers taped to them. One teenager threw all three knives at once. What did he win? Beer. That’s another difference, the prizes aren’t just stuffed animals. You can win beer, liters of soda, water, and sometimes house supplies like toilet paper or bed sheets.

Despite the massive crowds, we loved Hoi An. We felt privileged to be a part of the Tét celebrations. Every night, swarms of multigenerational families would trek out to A-Town to enjoy food, drink, games, and each other’s company. It definitely made us miss our families. Tét is all about family and for a few days we felt like we were part of Hoi An’s family.

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