By Jack Souther
The coastal town of Hoi An embodies the very best of both old and new Vietnam. Unlike Hue and so many Vietnamese cities that were devastated by bombing, Hoi An was miraculously spared the destruction of war. Many of the original 18th century buildings in the old town still stand among a scattering of ultra modern hotels and superb restaurants. Upscale boutiques and souvenir shops cater to tourists only a few blocks from the sprawling central market where local buyers and sellers in traditional bamboo hats carry on business just as their forefathers did centuries ago. Best of all, the streets are free of traffic and, with a population of about 80,000, Hoi An is small enough so that almost everything is accessible by bike or on foot.
We began our trip in the old capital city of Hue, 200 km north of Hoi An. Between the two towns the fringe of coastal lowland that borders most of Vietnam is broken by a spur of the Truong Son Mountains that extends eastward to the ocean near the city of Danang. The coastal road climbs from the watery flatlands around Hue and crosses the Mountains through Hai Van Pass before descending to China Beach and Hoi An in the south. The views are spectacular. At the top of the pass we stopped, pushed through a scrum of waiting hawkers, and climbed up to an old battle-scarred fort strategically perched on a rocky promontory high above the parking lot. Originally built by the French and later used as an observation post by American troops, it has a commanding view of the surrounding mountains and coastline.
South of the Truong Son Mountains the coastal road skirts the sand and surf of China Beach where battle weary American soldiers were once sent to recover from the stress of combat. It is still a beautiful stretch of pristine coastline but if development goes ahead as planned China Beach is destined to become Vietnam's answer to the Riviera. Spur roads lead from the highway to the edge of the sand where signs extol the grand hotels that will someday grace the beach.
We rolled into Hoi An in the early afternoon and checked in to the luxurious Hoi An Hotel. Despite its four-star rating, tree-shaded dining patio, and immaculate rooms with balconies overlooking the pool, the Hoi An Hotel is both affordable and central. Located in the middle of Old Town it’s only a few blocks from the riverfront and a pleasant 5 km bike ride from the surf and sand of Cua Dia at the southern end of China Beach. Any thought of going for a swim in the ocean was scrapped when we heard the roar of giant waves crashing onto shore long before we even got to Cua Dia Beach. But the broad expanse of palm-shaded sand is an inviting place to hang out. I bought a snack from one of the women selling fruit on the beach and, with a palm tree as a back-rest, settled down to just watch the waves and enjoy a brief interlude of private contemplation – a rare luxury in most of Southeast Asia.