I was fairly whipped yesterday afternoon from too little sleep, but Binh (whose full name is Nguyen Thai Binh) was eager to show me the ancient village of Hoi An, and particularly the food market. Portions of the village have been Disneyland-ified, true, but the outdoor food market is a genuine sensual pleasure — an aroma-gasm and a novel learning experience. Everything in the Hoi An market feels warm, organically raw, steamy, fresh, ripe, alive.
There’s a slight downside in that the food sellers and merchants are constantly hitting on you. They have very little money and they know you have a fair amount of it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to describe Hoi An as a relatively poor town for…perhaps not the majority of the residents but a fair portion of them. I’m not trying to romanticize poverty in any way or downplay the downsides, but it seems as if Hoi An-style poverty is — I want to put this carefully — somewhat more manageable or tolerable than the big-city variety.
Life feels very natural and fresh and buoyant and wonderfully atmospheric here, and everyone seems to know each other and the vibe is very enveloping and almost joyous in a way. Okay, not “joyous” but mellow and serene. The community is one big family, or so it seems.
When Vietnamese parents get too old to fend for themselves they live with their kids until the end. This, at least, is what I was told by Binh, who is married with a kid and another — a boy — due in December.
The city is also famed for its 200-plus tailoring shops. You can have a decent business suit made within a day for roughly $120 or so, or so I was told. The actual suit-weaving isn’t done in Hoi An but in out-of-sight sweat shops.
Binh took me for a ride down the Thu Bon River on an African Queen-sized tourist boat. I tipped the boat owner about 50,000 dong, or $2.50.
For whatever reason I haven’t been hungry since I arrived in Vietnam, and I’m feeling really good now because of this mini-fast. That’s a pretty ridiculous thing to say when you’re in one of the greatest food towns on the planet, but that’s where I’m at now.
“Imagine if there was a farmer’s market a few blocks from your house and everything there was in peak season all year round, and also everything was grown within 10 miles of the market, probably organic, and picked less than 24 hours before it went on sale,” a travel writer has written. “Also imagine that everything at the market was so cheap that it might as well be free. This seems to be the case in much of Vietnam, and definitely in Hoi An.
“Another way of thinking about it is, if you were going to prepare a complicated dish that had 5 or 6 different vegetables and herbs in it, and you went to Whole Foods to get the best quality you could find, it might cost $10 or more. If you wanted to make the same thing here it might cost $1 for those same things, and they’d be at least a day or two fresher as well. This helps explain why the food here is so amazing and so cheap at the same time.”
The famed Confucious Cup, which is the only one of its kind in Asia, or so Binh claims. There is another somewhere in Europe, he says.