Dusk in Hoi An

Where friendship and a pervading serenity soothed my troubled heart

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Hội An translates to “peaceful meeting place,” and as an important trading port for over 400 years, and now a popular tourist destination, this city in Vietnam has lived up to its name.

A woman repairs fishing nets in Hội An, Vietnam — a place where soft, brilliant colour pervades daily life, from the lush green rice fields to the colourful lanterns that line the streets at night. Thampitakkull Jakkree / Shutterstock.com

Once a bustling port, Hội An’s popularity waned in the 18th century after its Nguyễn rulers were defeated, leaving the town virtually untouched for 200 years. This remarkable preservation has earned Hội An Ancient Town a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city’s history and beauty — with its weathered yellow buildings and colourful lanterns illuminating the streets at night — now attract several million tourists a year.

It was these images that first drew me to Hội An in August, 2015. I was living in South Korea at the time and looking for a nice solo getaway for a few days. I wandered the streets of Hội An’s old town, lounged by my hotel’s pool, ate two local specialties — Cao lầu (made with noodles, pork, and local greens) and white rose dumplings, and generally had a lovely, relaxing time.

A dawning romance

I also met a boy. I was single at the time and perusing Tinder every so often, and on my last night in town, I finally talked myself into meeting this guy I had matched with. We went for a drink at a modern, dimly-lit bar housed in one of the ancient wooden buildings of Hội An’s old town, which made for a pretty cool date spot (although Tinder dates were likely not what the original builders envisioned).

Hội An Ancient Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was a busy trading port from the 15th to 18th centuries, and the mixture of foreign and indigenous influences from that time is well-preserved in its buildings and street plan. Hien Phung / Shutterstock.com

A month later, the guy — let’s call him Tinder — came to Korea to visit me, sparking a several-months-long romance. He was travelling and working remotely at the time, and I thought it would be wonderful to do the same. When I quit my job in Korea at the end of the year for other reasons, I decided it was a good opportunity to do just that.

He and I met up in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and planned our travels together. But about a month after I arrived in Chiang Mai, we decided to go our separate ways. All the excitement at the beginning of our adventure quickly turned to distress.

A dark night in a foreign land

I found myself drowning in a cocktail of post-breakup emotions — the anger, the heartache — along with many worries. I didn’t know if I’d be able to afford accommodation on my own, or if I could handle the loneliness of travelling alone.

That first month was tough. I worked remotely as a writer sitting in local coffee shops, visited temples, and did yoga in my hotel room. I was functioning okay, but I was lonely and never quite found my footing in Chiang Mai. I didn’t want to go back home — I wanted to continue travelling — but I wanted to wrap myself in something familiar, something that could give me the comforts of “home” while I was out there in the world.

On a historic street of Hội An. worradirek / Shutterstock.com

The one place that felt comfortable was Hội An. However, in an unfortunate plot twist, Tinder was living there at the time. After several days of agonizing over whether going there was really the best idea, I convinced myself it was the right move.

At first, Hội An was not the magical place for me that it had been the previous year. I was sad and uncertain, and to make matters worse, there was only one coffee shop with both decent Wi-Fi and air conditioning, and Tinder had already claimed it. I tried to work from my hotel room and other cafés, but after a couple weeks I gave up and moved into his territory.

This was, of course, a terrible decision. If not for Beyoncé’s Lemonade album blasting in my ears at all hours of the day, I may not have made it through those weeks. Things just weren’t working. I wanted to stay in Hội An, but something needed to change.

I decided to switch up my accommodation and move to a homestay. These intimate, family-run, bed-and-breakfast-like places are quite common in Hội An. I settled on a small homestay near a rice field. This would prove to be one of the best decisions I made my whole time abroad.

Peace on the horizon

The next day, my homestay host, a man named Lac, came to my hotel to pick me up. He was a small, gentle man with a generous smile and an abundance of energy. I immediately felt a relief I couldn’t quite explain.

I told him I didn’t think my giant bag would fit on the back of his scooter, but he cheerfully assured me it would. I thought his optimism was cute but misplaced. After about 20 minutes of skillful looping and knotting, the bag was magically secured to the motorbike. We teetered off to Cam Chau, a neighbourhood about 10 minutes outside the centre of Hội An, where Lac lives with his wife and two adorable dogs.

It’s a quiet neighbourhood, and the first thing I saw as I pulled up to the house was beautiful wrought-iron gates, and behind them, an incredible garden. Its bougainvillea, palms, and other tropical delights enveloped me as I entered. I was already sold.

My bedroom (one of two in his home available for homestay) was on the second floor, with a large balcony overlooking the vegetable gardens of the surrounding houses and the bright green rice field beyond. That first evening, I sat on the balcony, put my feet up on the railing, and watched the sun set over the field, feeling a little less alone than I had just a couple hours earlier.

Over the next five weeks, Lac and I became buddies. He would see me off when I left to go write at the coffee shop and cheerily greet me when I came back home. We drank Biere Larue, a Vietnamese lager, and played Vietnamese card games. He told me about his life growing up, and how during the war the American soldiers always treated his family kindly.

He took me all the way to Danang, about an hour away, when I wanted to go for a yoga retreat. We rode his motorbike over Hải Vân Pass, a 21km stretch of road that winds through the mountains between Danang and Hue.

He was a talented guitar player and singer, and I listened to him play old sentimental Vietnamese songs. We went to watch our friend, Punya, a fellow guest at his homestay, perform in a local bar.

Just when I thought Lac couldn’t get any more impressive as a human being, I learned he is also a longtime practitioner of Vietnamese kung fu and qi gong, crediting the practices with keeping him healthy.

Qi gong sessions under the setting sun

Qi gong is a coordinated system of body posture, movement, and breathing used to balance and cultivate qi, or life force. The practice dates back thousands of years and has roots in Chinese medicine, martial arts, and philosophy.

Every day around dusk, I would hear a tap on my door and a “Hi, friend!” That meant it was time for my qi gong lesson. We would make our way to the balcony and go through the sequence. Sometimes he would correct me or laugh or stop to tell me stories. Other times we practiced in silence.

He likened the movements of qi gong to the flow of water, an analogy that resonated with me.

The water around me still felt turbulent those days, and some days I felt like I was barely keeping my head above the surface. But with each day that passed — each qi gong session, each evening stroll through the rice field, each trip to the old town to gaze at the lanterns — I found a little more peace and clarity.

And a lot of that had to do with my time spent at that little homestay near the rice field with Lac and his wife.

So, in the end, Hội An lived up to its name. It was a “peaceful meeting place” for me. It proved to be a source of friendship and serenity. Lac and I are still in touch, and I smile every time I get an unexpected message from him.

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