Hoi An Postcard 2022 - Vietnam is open - Rusty Compass travel blog

Hoi An Postcard 2022 - Vietnam is open

| 17 Jun 2022
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17 Jun 2022

How is Hoi An, Vietnam's most loved World Heritage travel destination, faring after the reopening of borders in March 2022? Check out the blog and video for a look.

The gentle late afternoon light is especially pretty on the yellow heritage buildings, directly across Hoi An's Thu Bon River. So I made the short bicycle ride across the river to An Hoi. The name of the settlement on the opposite bank is a curious reversal of Hoi An.

Two elderly boat ladies agreed to watch over my bike while I took some photos. When I returned, they pressed me to take a boat ride. It was late so I promised to come back the next day (see the video - Hoi An Postcard).

Hoi An's boat ladies are persistent but they reluctantly accepted it was too dark for to me to video a boat ride. Instead, we chatted about COVID, Hoi An and vaccines. I was intrigued to know what the people of this tourism-dependent town were thinking about the past two years? The ladies told me their lives had been crushed by the closure of tourism. But things were picking up - especially with the return of domestic tourists.

They were interested in my COVID and vaccination history. They were keen to assure me they were vaccinated and had not yet had COVID.  I got the sense there wasn't much skepticism amongst the locals in Hoi An. These people had been served well by their faith in public health advice. If you had to spend the COVID years anywhere in Vietnam, Hoi An would have been a pretty good choice.

These boat women interrogated about my vax status and COVID history before inviting me aboard. Tough women.
Photo: Mark Bowyer These boat women interrogated about my COVID history before inviting me aboard. Wonderful tough women.

The pandemic's impact on Hoi An has mainly been economic. Unlike Vietnam's major cities, Saigon and Hanoi, where sickness, death and lockdowns caused massive upheaval in 2021, Hoi An experienced relatively minor outbreaks and few lockdowns across the two years. By the time Omicron ripped through the population earlier this year, the town was mostly vaccinated.

Hoi An was one of the last places I visited in Vietnam before the borders closed in 2020. Like everyone else, I was shut out of the country for 2 years.

As the Vietnam tourism destination most exposed to international travellers, I was fascinated to get back and see how things were shaping up as borders reopened.

Prior to COVID, Hoi An was the place most often spoken of in discussions of tourism excess and commercialisation in Vietnam. Its small scale and outstanding heritage assets make it especially fragile and it was getting loved to death.

Many believed the coachloads of tour groups were ruining the place. The massive coastal developments to the north and south of the town seemed likely to push things beyond their limits.

After COVID, the risks to Hoi An remain but they are likely to be delayed a few years.

Hoi An market was busy as ever
Photo: Mark Bowyer Hoi An market was busy as ever
Wedding photography is back on the streets of Hoi An
Photo: Mark Bowyer Wedding photography is back on the streets of Hoi An
Cycling the Hoi An ricefields
Photo: Mark Bowyer Cycling the Hoi An ricefields
Chef Duc, Hoi An
Photo: Mark Bowyer Chef Duc, Hoi An

It will be some time before large tour groups return. China, the biggest regional tourism market is still closed. Other mass tourism markets will take time to ramp up. The mega-developments beyond the town will no doubt slow down a tad too.

That makes this a good time to be in Hoi An.

I had a couple of wonderful visits across two months after the reopening of borders in March. Things were quieter than usual of course. That was special. It reminded me of my many visits in the 90s.

Across my visits, the streets of Hoi An slowly started to return to a semblance of normality. Wedding photography was catching up on two lost years. Hoi An's streets were again taking their rightful place with local Instagrammers and Tik Tokkers.

International restaurants are mostly gone around the centre of town. Most are gone for good. But you won't go hungry. The local food scene is alive and well. You can still enjoy the delicious culinary specialities of the region - Cao Lau, Com Ga, Mi Quang, Hoang Thanh and more. Or head to An Bang beach for a seafood feast and a dip.

Patching up the net before heading out to sea - An Bang Beach
Photo: Mark Bowyer Patching up the net before heading out to sea - An Bang Beach

There were already lines out front of Banh Mi Phuong - the place Anthony Bourdain put on the map with his gushing "symphony in a sandwich" review more than a decade ago.

Thanks to Bourdain, Banh Mi Phuong is now a major commercial operation in the town. It's nothing like the tiny market stall Bourdain was charmed by. The banh mi is still spectacular - if you don't mind the queues.

Less famous eateries that depended on foreign tourists pre-COVID are gone. A handful away from downtown have survived off the small community of international expats. I'll miss some old favourites. I was especially sad to see White Marble wine bar and eatery closed for good. Many an enjoyable glass of wine and conversation had been had there over the years.

Hoi An restaurant veteran Tran Duc will reopen his restaurants - Mango Rooms, Mango Mango and Mai Fish later in the year.

The closest you'll see to mass tourism at the moment are the crowds of domestic tourists that descend during summer holidays and national holidays.

There are a few other changes in Hoi An worth keeping in mind. These apply elsewhere too - especially places previously dependent on international tourism.

The travel industry; hotels and guest houses, travel companies, service companies, are still wounded after the pandemic. Many won't reopen. Many of those that are open are struggling to find experienced staff. Expect lots of little quirks and even an occasional annoyance. Be patient. Remember these businesses are emerging from a disaster.

For me, the upside of being in a special place without crowds, was ample compensation for the hiccups. It may get more tricky if the tourists start returning in bigger numbers than the current limited capacity can cope with.

Check out our Hoi An guide here. Here are our recommendations of things to see and do in Hoi An.

And for street eats that survived the pandemic, click here.

Check out the video (above). You can also have look at our Hanoi postcard below.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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