From the Thien Nga Hotel where I stayed in Hanoi to the centre of the Old Town, it’s about a 10 minute walk. At first, it’s all scrubby streets filled with guesthouses, massage shops, minimarts and the occasional big hotel. Everywhere there are men offering motorbike rides or bicycles to hire.
Then, the bigger streets, roads thronged with bikes & motorbikes, cables looping down towards the pavement then arcing back up to telegraph poles tangles with wires. Some builders working on concrete foundations to the side of the pavement.
Everyone I’d spoken to who’d visited Hoi An had told me what a beautiful place it was, but at first it’s hard to understand why. Then, as I get closer to the Old Town, I spot a temple: Phap Bao Temple, all lit up with lotus-shaped lanterns to celebrate the new year. Outside it, squatting on the pavement, a group of women sell fruit from big baskets strung on long wooden poles for carrying across the shoulders.
In the Old Town itself, thousands of lanterns adorn the shops and restaurants, strung across the street and hanging against the buildings’ iconic yellow walls. At night, the Old Town becomes a cycling-and-walking-only area, so there are bikes and people everywhere, thronging the narrow streets. In a strange way, it reminds me of being at home in the Lake District in August, holiday season – that same sense of crowd, of freedom, of everyone out to enjoy themselves. It feels like a festival.
Down by the river there are women, old and young, selling coloured paper cartons with a candle inside, for people to float on the river and make a wish. Some offer boat rides, and in my head I can’t stop singing that song from Tangled.
I don’t make a wish – what is there to wish for? And maybe I’ve read too many stories where wishes come true in a really unexpected and horrible way. So I just watch. One thing I’ve noticed about solo travel is that it has a tendency to turn from an active participant into an observer, watching everybody else and being fascinated by other people’s actions. Or maybe that’s just who I am anyway and travel just brings it out. Maybe it’s just the writer in me.
After watching the boats from An Hoi Bridge, and wandering all the little old streets, eyeing up the many souvenir shops, I stop at a little restaurant called The Rice Drum, where I overeat on fresh spring rolls followed by stir fried noodles. This is also where I first experience the apparently common Vietnamese trait of having no social barriers when it comes to asking personal information. I have a long conversation with my waitress, keen to practise her English, who asks me why I’m here alone, whether I’m married or have a boyfriend, whether I have children, how old I am, and whether I’m sad about being here alone. Then she says she wishes for me that one day I will return to Hoi An and to this restaurant with my husband or boyfriend, and I say thank you, because I’m not sure what else to say.
Another night, I walk a little way along the river and back up the other side so I can browse all the beautiful lantern stalls in the Night Market. I’m desperate to buy one to bring home (I’m planning a summer house in my garden, and I know it would look beautiful on those summer evenings back at home), but I still have a fortnight of travel and can’t transport it.
On my last morning in Hoi An, I get up early to catch the sunrise at 5:30am. There are only a couple of other tourists about, mostly the ones with very fancy cameras, but mostly it’s just locals going about the business of the day, before heat and tourists set in. At this stage of the morning, the atmosphere of the town is completely different. Although it’s always felt like a safe and friendly place, I’ve felt that as a tourist I’m there for people to make money out of (which in a way is fine: if tourists are going to flock in their thousands to such a small town, then we ought to do our bit by helping the economy).
But in the morning, at that quieter hour, it doesn’t just feel friendly – it feels welcoming. The locals wave as I wander past their closed shops. One old man sitting in front of his shop gives me a toothy smile as I walk towards the town, then smiles again as he recognises me on my way back. Aside from the sunrise, which is pink and yellow and then washes across the sky in a wide orange glow, it’s fascinating to see people going about their daily business: restocking restaurants, arriving with their produce on carts and the backs of bikes, opening up shops, praying, lighting incense, burning their rubbish in the street in front of the house. It feels peaceful and somehow normal to me, despite the fact I’m on the other side of the world in a culture in many ways quite different from my own. It doesn’t feel like an act or a festival put on for tourists; it just feels like life.