The Magic of Hội An & An Bang
Right guys, just to let you know that this post is loooooong and too long I know, but a good read I think. I wanted to share all the events that happened and I certainly think it captures my incredible time in Hoi An and the wonderful people and family.
If you need help falling asleep, or have a long journey to while away the time, it’s the perfect time to read this.
I know I said it before, but from here on, I WILL keep the blogs much shorter with more pictures and get up-to date.
I also have some exciting news for you all, which will be coming soon.
Da Nang to Hội An An is only a short 25kms ride down the road, so I took a very leisurely approach to my day. I average about 110km’s day, and when you do more than say 80km’s, you have to consider the elements, nutrition and hydration a lot more, but when you get a day of 25km’s, 50 or even 70, it’s so much more relaxed.
I'd read and heard so many good things about Hội An An and was super excited about experiencing it, so when I arrived at An Bang Beach, just 4 km’s from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hội An An town, I was surprised not to have heard more about this incredibly inviting little gem.
I was in no rush to get anywhere when I arrived, so I explored An Bang and was instantly taken by it’s charm. An Bang Beach is a small village by the sea, that has that certain unique character and charm, found in few places in the world. Firstly, it’s super laidback, almost ethereal, with a real village feel to it. Palms rise up all around you, offering dappled light, with the small, calm, single track and pedestrian friendly main street, set back and away from the beach, dotted with quiet restaurants and shops and local residences either side. Heading south down the street, with the sea just 100m to your left, you find lots of alleyways, strewn with quaint and well looked after homestays and homes, with the path only big enough for a motorbike, often leading out to a small break amongst the trees, to the stunning An Bang beach.
The small, pedestrian friendly road through An Bang hugs the coast line for a good mile, leading to the former go to Beach of Cudai Beach, now badly affected by coastal erosion. West of, and by-passing An Bang, is a busier main road, which separates An Bang, creating a cocooned oasis like feeling, with unquestionable charm. I rode along An Bangs mile-long stretch at a sedate pace, aware of everything, and I knew I’d be coming back to spend some time there.
I rode the rice paddy laden roads 4km’s into Hội An An, and was instantly taken by it’s charm and sense of understated class, a rarity in Vietnam, it seemed. On the way I even rode passed an older gentleman, laying on the back of his buffalo, positioned right by the road, as if he had bought the buffalo just for that purpose. I stopped, asked if I could take a picture from a distance with universal sign language, then lent Surly Temple up against a tree and went to shake his hand as thanks, which he seemed appreciative of. I imagine the fibre of my fabric would have better suited him, but the respect was in the handshake, and not currency.
The further into Hội An An you go, the more charming and architecturally impressive it becomes, and with that, more touristy. At this point, I could see straight away that this was a going to be a tourist frenzy. Weaving in and out of the streets, I took a turn down one of the smallest, busiest streets, full of tailors and fabrics, and was just amazed at the number of ‘farangs’. This was a proper holiday destination. I must admit, I felt like a bit of lemon at this point and just wanted to get out of there.
The old town really is something to marvel at and riding through by bicycle is a way of just taking it all in without being distracted by things.
I watched and listened to some great live music that evening, wandered around the evening food market of An Hoi, and people watched for a good few hours, but I knew exactly where I would be going the next day.
I stayed at Lantern Riverside Hội An, on the An Hoi side, which was a great, quiet place to stay and the owner kindly put me in penthouse room, which had an incredible view from the balcony over looking the water ways at the rear of Hội An An where they had released burning onto the water to float away. I had some time to myself on the balcony and then watched as an older Vietnamese lady climbed over her different balconies, 2 story’s up, placing lit incense stick around the boundary of her house, offering prays to the Buddha I assume. Was nice to watch in the calm of the moment.
The following morning I loaded up Surly Temple again and made my way back to An Bang. On route I stopped at a great little coffee shop and restaurant called 9 Grains, where I met the chef, Colleen, from Brooklyn, who had been there a few months helping develop the team. We had a great chat and Colleen shared some great food places to try out whilst in Hội An and some of the food history, which was great. Colleen and I are still in touch now. Thanks Colleen, lovely to meet you.
Unlike any other places I’d visited, I already knew I was going to be here for at least a week and a half, which, of all the places, was a great to place to be, especially knowing that I would be seeing my auntie, uncle and cousins, who were on holiday in Southeast Asia and visiting Hội An An for a few days, which I was super excited about.
I had booked a more expensive than usual guesthouse just for 1 night, as I wanted to look around the area before committing to a weeks accommodation. The Homestay was stunning and my room was uber nice, with a cool, semi open air, concrete bathroom and Egyptian Cotton bedsheets, all very worthy of it’s price tag of 25$ per night.
A treat to myself on the first night in An Bang Beach. An Incredibly comfy bed and partially open air, natural bathroom.
I undressed Surly Temple, and took her for a ride around An Bang and down to Cudai Beach, before setting at Tuyet Restaurant, a local, beach front restaurant that Colleen had suggested. “Try the prawns in garlic and have a glass of the chilled white wine with it”, she had said in her recommendation. Well, if there’s one thing you’d like to know about me, it’s that when garlic, seafood and chilled white wine are on the menu, when good, and in the right setting, it triggers a sensation that I call the “taste bud orgasm” in my mouth, that leaves me smiling and slightly flushed, and Tuyet certainly didn’t disappoint.
An Bang beached is lined with an array of restaurants, from the more expensive and western, to the very reasonable and local and you are almost spoilt for choice. Each restaurant over looking the crashing of waves and sun loungers spread across the crisp, almost white sands.
With my taste buds still tingling all over, I knew what the rest of my afternoon would entail, and was more than happy to mindfully spend my afternoon indulging. The Deckhouse is one of the more upmarket places along An Bang, but provides a wonderful setting to sit back, spend time writing and sipping on some chilled white wine. The first time I’d done anything like this since being away.
It was here I was seduced by the delicious Hội An Scallops. Grilled in their shells, with lots of garlic, oil, spring onion and peanuts, my taste buds didn’t know what to do with themselves. This is self titled “porn star food”, or what Instagram aficionados call ‘foodporn’.
Soul kitchen, next door, is an equally enjoyable restaurant, with a more laidback atmosphere, with great live music most nights. I moved across, and took a seat, and feeling a little fruity, I order a ‘night cap’. A Pina Colada, no less.
I got talking to a large group of people close by who happened to be part of the local expat community, and who were all really nice, and soon enough, I was sat amongst them, chatting away, holding a Pina Colada and feeling like a real man.
They were cool people and I’d be seeing more of them over the next week.
My breakfast the following morning was my first introduction Cao lầu, a dish usually made with thick noodles, Cha siu pork, crispy pork rind or crispy Cao lầu noodle squares, local greens and a small amount of meaty ‘umami’ type broth, that is found only in the town of Hội An. This dish varies from place to place in Hội An, with the only consistent ingredient being the Cao lầu noodles. It is said that Cao lầu noodles are made using only water from one ancient well in Hội An called Ba Le well. What can I say, Cao lầu is dish that Hội An is understandably very proud of, and if you ever get the chance to try it, I implore you to do so. Actually, I have excellent news, you’ll be able to recreate this incredible dish and share it with friends, sans the Ba Le Well water, once my Southeast Asia Bike Travel Recipe Book is out.
After breakfast, I dressed Surly Temple and changed Homestay for the 3rd time in as many days. The routine of loading and unloading my stuff and staying in a new place is now almost a daily occurrence and not something I consider too much. In fact, I consider it more a part of the discipline process in which I am very in-tune with and something I see huge value in, for me.
After organising my stuff, I took a ride to Soul Kitchens sister beach restaurant, Soul Beach, on the edge of central An Bang village, with An Bang village abutting it on one side and an area of sandy no-mans land on the other, with An Bangs small road leading through it, which turns in a bumpy, sandy short cut between the remainder of An Bang, then Cui Dai Beach further south. I spent a good few hours writing and doing some admin with crashing of waves and warm sea air constantly reminding me of my surroundings.
It was here I met Colin, a lawyer from Denver, Colorado, solo traveling around Vietnam. For some reason I thought Colin might have been a biketourer, I don’t know why, I just had a feeling, so I asked. He wasn’t, but I’m glad I did ask, because after a little while, it sparked up a conversation between us and a great new friendship.
After finishing some writing, I went and joined Colin at the bar, who was talking to a cool, interesting looking guy, who looked like he had a few stories to tell and boy was I right.
Joh, a very chilled out and interesting local expat is originally from South Africa, with his strong accent still intact. The 3 of us chatted away and Joh explained that he was a retired doctor and that he had lived on a boat off the coast of Australia with 2 friends for about 3 years, a couple of years ago, which sounded very adventurous and cool. The conversation was great and I felt at great ease in the company of both of these cool dudes and was glad that these conversations would continue over the next few days.
Colin had been travelling around Vietnam and immersing himself in rural, authentic Vietnam and had some great stories to tell, which were great to listen to.
He’d also been scuba diving the previous day, which sounded fun, and had become friendly with some of the instructors who, after our conversation with Joh finished, we sat and chilled out with. We sat listening to some very cool and interesting, improvised music, by a very talented local musician, Stefano, and sat, taking everything in.
Now, I know very little about South America, but I was happy to learn something about Ecuador at this point. It turns out that Ecuadorian women are gorgeous, if Emilia is anything to go by. Sandwiched between myself and Johan, one of the scuba diving instructors from Norway, sat this gorgeous, Ecuadorian, Emilia, who was also a scuba diving instructor and effortlessly exuded sex appeal like it was blowing in the wind.
One thing I have come to realize, and I’m grateful for, from the lesson I've learnt, and from the real me I have come to known and love, is that my ex just really wasn’t my type either. Another thankful awakening. I digress.
There was something about Colin that was really familiar and I couldn't quite put my finger on it at the time, but then I realised, for me, he is the spitting image of, and sounds like Lindsey Buckingham from Fleetwood Mac, albeit a younger version by some 20+ years. I know you’ll be reading Colin and I don’t know if that’s been mentioned before?
After a good few drinks and conversations, Colin, Joh and I said we’d catch up again and I bid all goodnight and took a casual ride back to my homestay.
I changed Homestay again for the penultimate time and moved once more to a different place.
An Bang has a very generous choice of excellent homestays, and from my experience, having stayed at 4 different places, it’s hard to go wrong. One thing that each one offers, is a very local, homely experience, with home cooked food for breakfast at all of them, which is a wonderful experience.
The next few days were all about blogging, getting to know people, meeting new people, strolling the beaches and riding the streets of An Bang, enjoying the slower pace of life and sharing smiles with people.
Colin and I had caught up over these days and had had some quite philosophical conversations, with courage and discipline being brought up a few times. One night at Soul Kitchen there was some great live Latin American music, with a few people dancing, and the place a buzz with people. We’d sunk a few beers and chatted away with Joh and others, when Colins attention drifts to the dance floor. I soon see the attractive girl that has caught Colins attention, dancing on her own with a nice elegant style. “Why don’t you go and ask her to dance” I said, “what have you got to lose?”
“Right” Colin replied in agreement. Taking a sip of beer, he stood up and said “courage right”, and headed straight for the dance floor and soon enough, they are embraced, hand in hand, in a salsa dance, which was just great. It makes me smile thinking about it now.
The following evening Colin, Joh and myself met at Soul Kitchen with more live music from Stefano, and a really buzzy atmosphere. Again, our conversation was great, with Colin sharing his passion for hunting and the outdoors, and Joh sharing his medical knowledge and explaining his recent news that his “fatty liver” had got better, meaning he was allowed to drink a few beers again.
The music was very impressive, with Stefano, an introverted and hugely talented character, who looked like Fagan, from Oliver Twist, playing one of the best covers I’ve ever heard live, covering Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison, with a certain jingle jangle that just made you want to move your feet, and soon enough, this is exactly what happened, as the floor filled with fun dancing and smiles.
At the end of the night, we all went our separate ways, and after riding around for a little while, I pass Colin on the street on my way back to my Homestay, talking to some local ladies by a restaurant. “I’m trying to get a lift back to my hotel” he said. “Good luck” I said, carrying on cycling along.
Breakfast the next morning was just delicious. I can’t recommend staying in a Homestay enough in An Bang; meticulously clean, very comfortable, incredibly welcoming, and the home cooked food is just divine and so authentic.
I explored Hội An for the day, cycling through the quiet paddy fields to get there.
Before I started this adventure, I knew I’d be going home with a bit more ink on my skin than when I’d started, and I’m not sure at which point I decided, but I had decided I was going to get a tattoo here and had already a pretty good idea of what I was going to get, so I started designing it over the next few days. This is pretty rare for me, as, with my tattoos before, I’ve always spent a lot of time considering them, with my most recent tattoo taking about 4 years to get. This one however, I knew I was getting it, where on my body I was getting and the power of what it means to me.
I met Colin at Réhahn Photography gallery that he’d recommended and wanted to visit, and I’m so glad he did, as it was amazing, and something I would later show my auntie, uncle and cousins.
Réhahn is an extensively travelled, French photography who lives in Hội An. He is particularly known for his portraits of Vietnam, Cuba and India, and the media regularly describe him as the photographer “who captures the soul of his models” and you can certainly appreciate that statement when you see his work.
Colin and I had lunch together at a local restaurant over looking the Thu Bồn River and I had the pleasure of introducing Colin to Cao lầu for the first time, which we both enjoyed, along with a nice cold beer.
Colin then explained, with a smile on his face, that he ended up getting a ride on the back of a girls moped the night before when I’d seen him, who dropped him off, and then expected to have a ride on Colin it seems, which made us both laugh out and we still talk and laugh about it now. Very funny.
I sat and spent a few hours writing outside a Hội An coffee shop, where I watched a very angry and aggressive, early 70’s looking Vietnamese lady pushing a western, 60’s something looking guy, then take off her slipper and start whacking the guy with it, like it was straight out of a movie scene. Turns out, halfway through a massage, the western guy asked the ladies daughter for a ‘happy ending’, and when she said no, the guy got up and walked out without paying. Good job the aggressive older lady wasn’t wearing stilettos!
It was Colins last night and we’d agreed to later meet at Marimba bar in Hội An for live music and drinks. When I arrived I was introduced to Fabo from Argentina and his girlfriend Samar from Spain, the owners, and a cool group of expats, including the exotic Ecuadorian, Emilia. Soon enough Fabo had his homemade melon rum out and we were doing big shots of the stuff. I’m not really a spirits and shots guy, but this stuff was delicious!
The night started heading ‘that way’ and with a flight to catch the following day, Colin decided to call it a night.
I’ve met only a small few people along this journey that I can call a true friend, and Colin certainly fits within that group. We are still in contact today and will continue to be I hope. Colin, I thoroughly enjoyed your company in Hội An and look forward to catching up again at some point in the near future. You’ll always have a place to stay when visiting England. A real pleasure.
The night continued with more shots, great conversation and getting to know this cool group of people, but with a 4km ride home still, I decided it was probably best to leave at this point, before my bike cycles me home. I knew before the night started that it was probably going to be late when I rode home, so I made sure I was lit up like a lighthouse, with my head lamp providing a Cyclops ray of light, illuminating any pot holes, people or animals that wanted to get in my way, and making way for a very fun ride home.
The next few days were spent chilled and writing at the beach, and waiting with bated breath for the arrival of the G’s, my family.
The morning of the G’s arrival I moved back to Hội An, via 1984 Tattoo Studio, where I gave them my design and they drew the idea on me for me to think about. The G’s were staying for 2 nights, so I booked the Sun Boat Hotel for 2 nights, which was a nice 200m along the river from Anantara, where they were staying.
At 5pm I made my way to Anantara to meet my family, which I was very excited about. Anantara is a stunning hotel, and as I made way up through the back entrance, I spot my auntie and uncle sitting at a table. They hadn’t noticed me, and as I reached them, in my most British of accent, I asked “Excuse me, may I use this chair”, to which they both looked up, and after a split second of expressionless looks, smiled, stood and we had a moment of welcomed cuddles and embrace.
We had a beer, chatted for a little while, then agreed to meet up a couple of hours later for dinner. I’d asked for a few little things for my mum to give Amanda to bring over, including some strong shoe laces for my riding shoes and the book, Marcus Aurealius’ Meditations, which I was super excited to get my teeth into.
In the evening we took a walk around Hội An, went for a drink and then stopped and had dinner at a relatively local restaurant, where I introduced them to another local specialty, white rose dumplings. White Rose Dumplings, or Hội An Dumplings are synonymous with Hội An and are absolutely delicious when dipped in the accompanying, fish sauce, garlic and chilli dipping sauce, but quite bland without. There is one family in HộiAn who hold the famous recipe for these delicious morsels, and subsequently make these for the majority of restaurants in Hội An.
Amanda had suggested doing a cookery class at Anantara, and asked if I’d like to do it with her, which I of course, said yes. We had a private class with Chef Li as our teacher, who spoke great English and knew her stuff. Amanda and I donned our aprons and set to work.
We prepared 3 dishes; Cao lầu, fresh spring rolls and Phở which were all excellent. I’d already done 1 cookery class in Hanoi, where I’d prepared fresh spring rolls and Phở, so I can’t wait to combine both of these, add my knowledge, and share these with you in my Cookery Book.
Chef Li was lovely, and after hearing about me cycling around Southeast Asia and beyond, started calling me ‘Hero’, which wasfunny.
After every dish that we cooked, we sat down and enjoyed at our fully dressed table, which was really great and so nice to share the experience with my Auntie A. GG made sure he was on hand to make sure we were making everything properly and to his standards and liking.
The class was great fun and GG kindly treated me, which was very kind of him.
That afternoon, the I took the G’s on a bike ride around Hội An, through the back streets and paddy fields, down to An Bang. With such a short amount of time here, and with an already hectic schedule, I wanted to show them both sides of Hội An, and just what this area offers.
With hired bikes and my self on Surly Temple, we made our way through the rice paddy ‘field of dreams’ to An Bang, with me taking some go-pro footage along the way. We went to Soul Beach, where we enjoyed some cocktails and some Rosé and just enjoyed our time, talking and relaxing.
After 4 months on a bike, it’s very easy to forget the everyday dangers of riding a bicycle on the road. You become very aware of your surroundings and familiar with the way of the roads, but when you then ride with anyone that doesn’t ride a bike very often, you have to take extra care in ensuring their safety, especially after 2 cocktails and half a bottle of wine. This resulting in a momentary blip of my responsibility as we crossed a busier road. I should have stopped and all crossed together and instead I looked, made sure there was a gap, and went. Nothing happened, fortunately, nor was there a close shave, however, GG did shout for Alex and Maria to stop and wait, which instantly made me recognize my careless mistake. It was a lesson I only needed to be taught once.
We were starting to loose light, but I had my headlight with me and my bike lights, which I could attach to others bikes if need be. I’d been riding around Hội An and An Bang beach for a week now, and had seen how safe the roads were and how many other cyclist ride around at night, so I wasn’t worried about the dark.
We hit the paddy fields with enough light, and made our way, until, all of sudden I hear a panicked Auntie A shout “Alex, Alex….” from behind, followed by the sound of a bike and person hitting the deck. Gulp. I quickly stopped, jumped off and turn to see my Auntie A on the deck with her bike still between her legs and a nasty few grazes on her leg. I felt very very guilty and sensing the want for the bike ride to be over, we made our way back to Anantara.
We took another walk around Hội An and had a few drinks and continued talking. My cousins are at the same school I went to, and it’s great to hear how they are getting on. I went to see them both play hockey and rugby before I came away which was great to see them both doing so well.
I joined the G’s at Anantara for breakfast, which was a great spread, and a lovely treat. I do love a good breakfast buffet like that.
The 2 days passed so quickly, and as we were saying our goodbyes, both Amanda and George took me aside in a very affectionate gesture and just said how proud they were, which I was taken aback by. It was so nice to have seen them and spend time with them all.
After saying goodbye, I jumped on a fully loaded Surly Temple, and headed straight for Studio 1984, where I spent 5 hours of bone grinding tattooing on my elbow, which was as comfortable as a poke in the eye, but worth it.
The guys didn’t speak a great deal of English, but having designed it all myself, I just put my trust in him. We had a drink after and I chilled out with them for a bit before riding back to An Bang beach.
I ended up spending another 5 days in An Bang to let me tattoo heal, and stayed well out of the sun. I met some more cool people in my time there, including Viet, a Czech/Vietnamese guy who had moved to Vietnam, having lived in the Czech Republic all has life. He'd set up a motorbike touring company, but moved back to learn more about his heritage and family here and to learn the language. Great guy and story.
I caught up with Emilia some more and spent some more time with Joh, which was great. Joh, it was a real please to meet you my friend. If you are ever in the UK, please get in contact. All the best brother.
There was an interesting and fun circus performance at Soul Beach with a good 100 people scattered around the sandy floor watching, which was fun to watch.
On the way back, I stopped at Soul Kitchen for a night cap, as it was uber quiet and I could have a hermetic moment. Instead, I got talking to Scott who I’d bumped into a few times in my time in An Bang. We got chatting, and a night cap turned into one of the deepest conversations I’d had since being on this adventure, which was great. As the staff were closing up we ordered a few beers each which carried us through our chat, which carried on well after the staff had left and the security were setting up there bed in the front entrance, as they do in Southeast Asia. It’s during these conversations that you realize how far you’ve come as person, and it was great to talk to someone on a level beyond the realm of normal conversation. Great chat Scott, all the best buddy.
The following day and the weather turned, bring in strong winds, heavy rain and huge waves. I took shelter at Soul Kitchen, where I spent some time writing and planning. I wanted to sit in a particular place, in a quiet enclosed corner, and there was girl in their reading and sipping on red wine. I asked if I could sit in there with her, and after half an hour we started chatting. Yen was a 43 year old Vietnamese girl from Ho Chi Minh City, who spoke great English and had a successful career in fashion, and was pretty attractive.
9 hours later, 2 bottles of red wine, and a very interesting chat about Vietnamese culture and history, and all different things, we said goodnight, and said we’d meet up in Ho Chi Minh, and Yen would show me bright lights of Ho Chi Minh and some of the best food spots in town.
The following day, after an outstanding Cao lầu for breakfast, I tucked into my new book, Marcus Aurealius’ Meditations, a book on stoic philosophy practice, which I’ve found incredibly liberating. I started getting my gear together in preparation for the next part of the journey.
I explored the local back street cuisine, and found some absolute gems. An Bang Beach Restaurant is a secluded, local restaurant, ran by Dong and his family, and I highly recommend this to anyone exploring the area. The grilled scallops are just awesome. So so good. I can’t wait to recreate this on a secluded beach, on a camp fire in Malaysia, watching the big red orb fading into the night and rising somewhere else in the world.
Dinner was spent at Purple Lantern, an equally good restaurant in An Bang, where I had crispy pork noodles and grilled egg plant with spring onions and a garlic, shallot, oyster and soy sauce, sauce, which was so tasty.
Up until this point, I’d found the food in Vietnam very disappointing, but Hội An alone had taken a very disappointing foodie experience, and resurrected it to new heights, it was very special.
So after 17 days spent in Hội An, with some truly incredible experiences, and memories to last a life time, it was time to say goodbye for now.
Hội An and An Bang is an absolute gem of a place, and if I were to recommend anywhere in Vietnam, it is certainly this place.
Thank you Hội An.