Ever had a trip where everything felt right? The weather cooperated, you get a lot of free stuff and you basically have a great time. Ever had one where try as you might not to feel negative, there’s this nagging tug to pull you into negativity that the trip is less than what you expected?
That’s what happened to me in Hoi An.
I arrived in Hoi An around 3:30pm from Ho Chi Minh via Da Nang. I was feeling cranky because I haven’t had lunch yet, but my spirits picked up as the taxi pulled into Hoi An. Unlike other legs of this trip, I haven’t booked a room in Hoi An. The reviews on Travelfish were uninspiring, and I figured I’d try looking for one when I get into town. The receptionist at my guesthouse in Saigon referred a hotel that would give me a good price if I say that I got the referral from them, so I decided to try it out.
Swimming Pool, the mirror behind the reception screams. Hoi An is a very popular destination, specially for those traveling overland from HCMC to Hanoi, so competition is fierce among the hostels. That’s why they would try to outdo each other with pools, free wifi, breakfast. In theory, it’s us, the customers who win because we have more options and (theoretically) better service.
Take my current hotel for example. They offered me a room for $12 without aircon. If I’m going to use the aircon, the rate for my room would be $15. So up we went through 4 flights of stairs, passing by the swimming pool looking so blue and inviting in the heat. The room was at the top floor, and it was disconcerting to see the short door. However, there was more than ample head room inside (though I really don’t get the short door. Did they run out of material?). The room was huge and it looked great. It was a double room with ensuite toilet, cable TV, fridge and a tiny veranda that looks out into the room across from mine and the one underneath it (and the occupant’s underwear that was left on the bed).
However, once you get over the initial awe and start “living” in your room, you notice a lot of things. First, there’s no Starworld, National Geographic nor Discovery channel on TV. So much for cable — there’s only so much Start Sports and BBC World that I can take. The shower, though impressive with ths sliding doors to keep the water out does not have any soap dish inside so you’d have to keep opening and closing the sliding doors to get your shower things. Don’t even get me started on the water heater that doesn’t work (not that you need hot water; it’s been very hot in Hoi An). It was hot in my room so I gave notice at the reception that I wanted to use the airconditioning. They said yes and flipped the switch for the airconditioning unit in my room. Come nightfall, I was back in my room and sweating. The aircon was turned on but the room wasn’t getting any cooler. There’s no remote to check the thermostat.
Today, when I went down, I was told that I had to move to another room, since a group was checking in and needed the room I was staying in. Inside my new room, I immediately realize that my old room was part of the hotel’s new wing; my current room is dated. It shows its age: the TV and fridge has seen better days, the side table missing a drawer. The bathroom tries to impress with its tub, but it fails because there’s no shower curtain to keep the water off the bathroom floor. At $15 a night, I suppose I shouldn’t be expecting too much.
Back to my first day in Hoi An, I set off from the hotel in good spirits. I went out to look for something to eat and promptly got lost. While I was walking I was marveling how different Hoi An is from Ho Chi Minh; how peaceful life in this small town compared to the chaos of the capital. Nobody was even hassling me to buy their wares, a surprise since all the guidebooks warn travelers about this.
I must have looked more lost than I thought because a woman on a scooter chatted me up, saying she saw me on the other street and told me I was going the wrong way. She offered to take me to the ancient city. She owns a shop in the market she says. She’s a tailor. That set off the alarms in my head, but I was too eager to talk to people that I ignored it and went with her.
I knew what I was getting into. I figured, since this is what people go to Hoi An for, might as well be all touristy and try it out. The problem is, once you showed interest in one store, EVERYBODY pegs you as the tourist who has money to burn. One girl makes custom made shoes, an old lady does massage and manicure. They were all very persistent, and they all seemed unfriendly once I said no and walked away.
That pretty much set my mood towards Hoi An. I ventured out of the market and walked around the ancient city. Hoi An has a ticketing system for the top draws of the old quarters, but there are no clear signs around town. In one of the temples I entered, the caretakers with very limited English asked for my ticket. I said I didn’t have any and asked if I can buy from them. They said yes, but they didn’t give me a ticket, and they made gestures to put my 100,000 dong bill in the donation box. I walked out. I prefer to make my donations voluntarily, as it’s supposed to be.
My stay in Hoi An wasn’t a total loss though. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to the beach this morning. Cua Dai beach is 4km from the town so I hailed a taxi to take me there. Unfortunately, despite looking like a brand new Toyota, the aircon doesn’t work. Didn’t stop it from racking up 68,500 dong in the meter though.
Negativity aside, the beach was gorgeous. It exceeded my expectation. I would imagine this is how every overpopulated, overly developed beaches around the world started. The driver dropped me off at a beachside restaurant that has a gorgeous spot in the long stretch of fine white sand beach. There’s nothing like the sights and sound of the sea to calm you down.
I’m leaving Hoi An today for Hue. I had such high expectations of Hoi An, which I think partly the reason why I’m so disappointed. The old quarter, while preserved, is overrun with shops that distracts from what the small town is known for.