It’s time to check out what lies beyond the Old Town and hit the beach.
Hoi An is about 4 kilometres from the coast, and is surrounded by open countryside. I’ve seen several Instagram photos of people out in the paddy fields and there are a number of cycling tours that will take you to remote villages and farms to show you how the country folk really live. I really enjoyed such a tour in Myanmar back in 2015, but I decide to just wing it today and see what’s going on by myself.
I borrow a bike from my hotel. The lady on reception and I agree that I should take the biggest one, but it’s still quite small. Most of the bikes around here have just one gear and a basket on the front. It’s old and it’s creaky, but I can live with it.
I very quickly adjust to cycling in the town. In Vietnam, the moped is king, and it can be frightening at first because there are seemingly no rules. However, in Saigon three years ago I quickly came the conclusion that they know what they’re doing way more than pedestrians do, and so I’m not intimidated by the roads. It’s one left turn out of the street my hotel is on, and then it’s on straight road all the way down to An Bang beach.
In the car from the airport I saw roads that turned off into the countryside. I take the first road I come to, about a kilometer outside of the town, and I’m suddenly in fields with water buffalo wallowing in the paddies. I watch as a small herd wades through the water and emerges right next to me.
I continue through the fields and pass through houses and small roads, and emerge back onto the main road. I, however, am not looking for An Bang beach. I’ve read about Hidden Beach, which is supposed to be far less touristy and commercial. I’ve screen shotted it on a map, but I’m not sure if I’ve found it or not on the main road. I read to look out for a sign for Boutique Hotel and Spa, but thus far I haven’t seen it, and there’s a big intersection coming up from which I can see the entrance to a beach. I turn into a road and a nice lady beckons me to park my bike in a nice parking shelter with a free parking sign. I assume this is it.
I step onto the beach and I’m greeted by flapping menus and calls to come and eat something here. I just want to have a wander along the water, so I decline politely. About a kilometer away I see cafes on the beach, so I make my way over there, passing traditional round Vietnamese fishing boats on the way.
When I get to the cafes, I find Hidden Beach.
I take a seat and order an iced coffee. I packed my bag full of beach stuff – book, sunscreen, spare clothes for after swimming, etc. But for now I’m content to sit and watch the water. There’s a handful of people lounging on sun beds under parasols, and it’s all very calm and serene. I enjoy it so much I get a beer at 11.30 am and stay for lunch.
After a while I decide to head to An Bang beach. I’ve read about a place called Soul Kitchen and I’m eager to try it. I walk in the water back to where I parked the bike. It’s about 35 degrees, and the sand is hot. So hot I have to jump the last ten feet. The soles of my feet start to sizzle and I’m sure I’ve burned them. I get my shoes on quickly, and then I notice my bike lying on its side under a tree and not under the shaded parking shelter.
“You buy nothing! You pay money!” yells the nice parking lady, her hand held out. At these beachside restaurants, you forgo the parking fee (and get free use of a sun bed) if you eat or drink there. I hand her the 10,000 she asked for, pick up the bike and continue on.
An Bang beach is only about two kilometers away, and it’s a lot more touristy. The road is full of taxis and shops and people touting for parking. I get to the beach entrance and pull into a parking place, which I’m aiming for as it’s the only one I see. The attendant here tells me it’s a dollar to park (around 20,000 dong), when it should be 10,000. I tell her it should be 10,000, but she’s insistent. I go to grab my bike and she says “Okay, ten”. I get out a small wad of money and she grabs a 100,000 note and says “Thank you.” Ahem. I tell her I want it back, and she starts fishing around for change. She gives me 50,000 change. I reach for my 100,000 and she acquiesces and gives me 80,000 change. She goes off to her mates and crows and laughs among them. I think ‘whatever’, and I go to the beach.
How different from Hidden Beach. It’s like a human car park. The sun beds are bunched together, there’s foreigners everywhere and basket women selling sunglasses, ice creams, jewellery, fruit and mango cakes. I skip the cacophony and find Soul Kitchen.
It’s not as nice as it looks in photos, and it’s very busy, but it’s pleasant. I spy one table a row back from the deck overlooking the beach and quickly grab it.
Another ice coffee and another plate of spring rolls make their way to me. I get out my book, but I’m too distracted by all the Koreans around me. Eighty percent of the clientele are Korean, and they’re all selfie-ing away and staring at phones and Kakao Talk-ing. I might as well be back in Itaewon.
A girl sitting alone on the deck leaves and I quickly grab her table. By now I’m wedged between two sets of Korean couples having thirty-minute photo sessions of each other and it’s impossible to relax. After a second beer I leave and go back to the bike.
Parking lady ignores me, which is nice. But then I can’t find the key to my lock. I try every pocket. I tip everything out. Nowhere. Parking lady comes over and tells me she can get someone to cut the lock for 50,000. I guess I’ll just have to. A guy comes over with a pair of pliers and spends ten minutes hacking through the rusty metal as I stand sheepishly by.
I want to go to the paddies on the other side of the main road back to town. I take a right turn after the bridge and find myself on a dusty track. I stop to look at an interesting temple. A water buffalo grazes nearby and a woman is in the fields. It’s pleasant. It’s 5 pm now and the heat is dying down and the sun is beginning to soften. I keep in mind that at the next left turn I need to go back to the road, but I’m enjoying the scenery and I keep going.
No left turns appear. It’s okay, I think. I keep going and I find the Van Duc pagoda. It’s quiet and peaceful, but no one is around and I’m not sure if it is still open or not, so I have a quick wander through the gate before getting back onto the road. Villagers stare at me as I pass by. I nod back as I pass.
There are still no left turns. I’m not panicking yet, but I’m noticing that dusk is approaching, and the roads in Vietnam are not well lit and I don’t have lights on the bike. I pass a small school where boys are playing in the grounds and they all rush to the gates to wave ‘Hello!’ at me. Stray dogs lie in the middle of the road. A family on a scooter yells something at me about the back of my bike – I haven’t got a puncture, have I? I think they are telling me about my kickstand, which is down (I’ve been having a hard time getting it back down).
I come to a crossroads. I don’t know which direction to go in. I see lots of scooters at the end of the right turn, so I carry on down there and take a left. A main road appears. This must be the way I came. I take the turn, and I carry on for about three kilometers, encouraged by seeing two tourists heading in that direction.
I don’t remember all the construction work going on. I turn and find a woman sitting at the side of the road plucking chickens. I take out the map of the Old Town the hotel gave me. She’s unsure. She calls people over. A heated discussion ensues. Eventually, they point me back in the direction I just came in. I thank them and head off.
I’m still not sure about this, especially as I see more tourists heading the other way, but I soldier on. My bum is starting to get sore and my legs are starting to ache. Lorries are thundering past. I ask another woman down the road and she tells me turn left at the next set of traffic lights. Those lights are miles away. I’m panicking now.
The next lights appear, and I see the name of the road I’m looking for. I’m relieved, but now I don’t know if I need to go left or right. I choose right, because on the left I see a water tower I think I remember from this morning. Three hundred metres later, I swing into the road my hotel is on. I get back in the dusk, soaking from sweat, tired, and happy.
I started where the red circle is and only began tracking on my Apple Watch where the green pin is.