Hoi An is one of those places everyone raves about, claiming it’s their favorite spot in Vietnam and praising its charm and beauty. With nothing but positive reviews, my friend and I had high hopes that this would be one of our most memorable stops yet. It certainly delivered there but not in the way we’d expected.
The town itself borders on the beach, but miles inland lies the heart of the city—the old town. Walking along the river in old town feels like I’ve been transported to an interesting mix of Key West meets South America meets the Mediterranean—none of which I’ve been to, but I’d imagine they’d look something like Hoi An if they were all combined.
The architecture is nothing like I’ve seen anywhere else in Asia and the buildings are painted shades of golden yellow and bronze. There’s upscale seafood joints and gourmet tacos and happy hour specials galore, but Hoi An is best known for it’s tailor shops.
Clothing stores here design custom tailored outfits—most notably suits. All the guys have custom jackets and trousers made in any pattern under the sun and have it shipped back home for a fraction of the cost to have it made at home. They make custom dresses, purses, even shoes—just show them a photo of what you want and within a few days, it’s yours for mere dollars. After paying to ship a box back home last month, I’ve already collected enough to carry an extra backpack but still couldn’t resist the urge to pick up a couple tailored tops while my friend had silk kimonos made as Christmas gifts.
During the day we rented bikes and rode down to the beach. The road there from our hostel becomes progressively more rural and foreign, with nothing but a handful of small shops and houses. The beach is very quiet and we met up with a few friends from the hostel, swam in the warm water for hours, perfected our tans and had beers with a group of locals. The landscape was nothing exotic like the islands of Thailand, but it was clean enough, the locals were friendly and we enjoyed the company of new friends. It was easily the nicest day spent in Hoi An.
Walking around the old town, I see the charm of this place. I understand why everyone loves it—it’s quaint and full of unique shops and different than anywhere else in Vietnam or Asia for that matter. However, away from the safety of old town, Hoi An is a completely different world—especially at night. I’ve never felt negatively about a place from this trip so far, but I couldn’t believe how bad it got. There’s a dark side of Hoi An that doesn’t get talked about unless you’ve lived through it… here’s my experience.
Our hostel was situated halfway between old town and the beach, both a few miles away in opposite directions. It wasn’t the best location but it was a scene I’m used to in Asia—random cafes and shops without any recognizable signs or English speaking owners, cramped and old buildings, not the most well kept surroundings. Nothing like old town.
The hostel itself was fun and lively, and I immediately recognized several backpackers I’d met in previous cities. Upon check-in, we sat down at the pool to catch up and were told right away that a girl from our hostel had been kidnapped two nights before. She left the bar drunk and alone and ended up in an alleyway with a local trying to take advantage of her. Another tourist had walked by and found her, carrying her out to the street when another local on a motorbike pulled up and said they’d take them back to their hostel. They got the girl on the bike and before the guy could hop on with them, the local took off with her and she’s been missing ever since.
The next story was from a guy we had met in Da Nang two nights earlier. The previous night he had been out with his friends when they were confronted by a group of locals. One of them held his friend hostage while forcing him to go to the ATM and pull out 2,000,000VND before releasing him. This is certainly not the Hoi An we’d been hearing about from everyone else.
We were instructed to travel in groups that night, not carry anything of value on us, and even the hostel had signs up warning about the locals. There was a large group of us at the first bar and we all had a great time. When we were ready to leave, we walked over to a cab and saw a very intoxicated girl inside. Standing in front of the door was an older Vietnamese guy instructing her to get in and the girl looked like she wanted to escape. I immediately thought of the kidnapping story and a few of us stepped in to set her free. She ran out and the Vietnamese man became enraged. “She’s my girlfriend!” he screamed. The girl somehow got wrangled back into the cab but my friend stood in front of the doorway to block her, calmly asking the guy what the girls’ name was to prove his claim. The man screamed “You American c*nt!” and started to swing at her when one of the guys in our group ran out to stop him. The man’s fist grazed my cheek as he punched our guy friend in the face and went on a rampage. The fight spilled out into the street with more guys running out of the club to control the man, who still managed to get a few more punches in. All we could do was watch, while the man continued to scream—I’ve never seen someone with so much anger. We left the bar a little rattled that evening but I figured it was just an unfortunate random encounter and held out hope for this beloved town.
The next day I caught a taxi somewhere and the driver took my money and wouldn’t give me change, which I was also warned about here. I figured he needed it more than I did and brushed it off again.
That night I opted to skip the bar scene but didn’t want to stay in the hostel so a friend and I decided to head to the beach. It was around midnight and except for a couple bars, the entire city shuts down at this time—especially in our area which becomes a ghost town. There wasn’t a single shop open and the streets were dark minus the random motorbikers circling around offering rides. I really didn’t feel comfortable taking one but there were no taxis around at this hour so I asked my friend if he trusted the local, he said yes so we hopped on and I said a quick prayer. We didn’t pass a single person or any sign of life on the way, just closed shops and empty streets. I hadn’t been to the beach at night and didn’t realize that it was completely dark and desolate, but it was too late, there we were. We paid the driver who promptly hid the money and claimed that we owed more. Another one of his friends pulled up on a bike and I became nervous, ready to just pay them whatever they wanted so they’d leave. Eventually they let us go but we no longer trusted them, and decided to walk a long way down the shore just to make sure we’d lose them. Not long after we found a place to sit, there were flashlights shining our way—it was them. They had followed us. They walked behind us and hid in the dark, waiting for us to leave. I could sense my friend’s tension and was now past the point of nervous as he suggested we leave immediately. Barking dogs appeared out of nowhere and I switched from nervous to scared and we walked as fast as we could to the street. The locals took off and out of nowhere, appeared in the street on their bikes with another guy, riding alongside us. They told us to get on and they’d take us back to our hostel and we declined, insisting that we wanted to walk and that we were meeting friends up the street. They were persistent and we tried not to show our fear, but it was clear they were in complete control here in the middle of nowhere. Eventually they left but we knew they’d return, and had to find an alternate route. I kicked off my shoes and we ran. We hid in alleyways and in people’s yards, ducking behind anything we could find as they circled the streets looking for us. The eerie silence was interrupted only by the sound of distant motorbikes and rats scurrying around knocking trash over. This is either a scene from a horror film or how my life ends, I thought.
There was only one bridge back to our hostel a few miles away and surely they’d see us run across it, but we had no other option. We passed a local on a motorbike and tried flagging him down for help but he ignored us. It was a real life game of cat and mouse—and the mice were in the form of giant rats that I nearly stepped on as I ran between hiding places along the river. As we approached the bridge, we paused to listen for motorbikes in the distance. When the coast was clear, we made a run for it. I couldn’t help but realize the irony in that moment—two Americans running for their lives through the streets of Vietnam, on the same soil that they ran on from us in the war nearly four decades ago. Poetic justice, I suppose. Suddenly in the distance we spotted lights—a hotel! We didn’t stop running until we cleared the gate and the first major hurdle to safety. The receptionist called a taxi for us (a real taxi, of course) and we made it back to the hostel, where I immediately devoured a sleeve of Oreos and passed out, grateful for a second chance at life.
For what it’s worth, this is just our account of the story—who knows what those motorbikers intentions were. They may have just wanted to scam us for more money but after all the stories we’d heard, of course we assumed the worst. Lesson learned… don’t go to the beach at Hoi An at night. And don’t get on a motorbike at night.
Actually, don’t even leave old town at night. While recounting my story to my hostel mates the next day, I learned several of them had an equally horrible experience while we were at the beach. One guy was surrounded by a group of locals and had his glasses stolen, another was followed by a gang on motorbikes and robbed. Another group asked the bar to call a real taxi but they refused, saying they had to get on motorbikes. Every morning someone from the hostel had a new story to tell. The mafia owns the bar and locals are all in on it—even the street vendors know what’s going on but are too scared to say anything and they’ll scam you for money too. Police enforcement is non-existent in this lawless city and it’s a shame that they’re letting these guys give Hoi An a bad name and hurt their tourism industry if enough people become aware.
At this point everyone was on high alert, but didn’t want to let some thugs ruin our time so we got another large group of people together to go out and made sure to stick together to avoid any issues. As usual, we had a great time at the bar and walked together to the next bar where we danced for hours, forgetting about the dangers that lurked outside. When it was time to leave, there was a group of around 12 of us and I felt safe with enough guys around. We passed an intoxicated girl getting on a motorbike with a group of locals and no one wanted to say anything to avoid conflict, but at the same time we felt obligated to protect her. One of the guys in our group warned her to get off because it was dangerous, and of course that set off one of the locals who grabbed a sharpened tile and threw it at him as we walked away. When it missed he took his belt off and chased after him, whipping anyone in close proximity. My friend ended up in the crossfire with a strike to her leg, and none of us had any way to control him. No one wanted to get involved in fear the rest of the gang would jump in, so the guys told us girls to start running. Out of nowhere a couple from our hostel pulls up on a motorbike, the girl starts yelling at the perpetrator to let us go and proceeds to run him over. He starts whipping her with his belt and the guy she came with manages to stab him in the leg, finally stopping his attack on us. We were already down the street at this point and with the main thug now injured, he retreats back to his gang where they hop on their bikes and the rest of our group takes off running. A few minutes later we all made it back to our hostel safely, did a quick headcount and celebrated the two heroes who rescued us. I could only imagine if this happened in America—that gang would have surely had weapons and this could have been so much worse.
After three nights of consecutively sketchy experiences, my friend and I booked a bus straight to the next town and spent our last night inside our hostel, taking no chances at all. Yes, this could have been a different experience—the one that everyone else talks fondly about as their best days in Vietnam—if we would have stayed in old town, not taken any rides from motorbikes, not tried to protect unknowing potential victims, not engaged with the locals on bikes in any manner. We made all of these mistakes. But these are situations that would not normally occur elsewhere, especially this consistently. And now sadly I can’t help but look at the Vietnamese with different eyes—my overall sense of this beautiful country and its people have been tarnished.
It’s still my favorite place and holds some of my best memories, certainly the most adventure I’ve had, but the creepy voice of locals repeating “motorbike” in their foreign monotone pronunciation as they drive alongside you—that sound and the associated sick feeling in the pit of my stomach will stay with me for a long time. Even still, I don’t regret anything that has happened. I’m alive and grateful to see and experience this land and culture, and know there’s a lot more adventure and stories right around the corner. Good or bad, it’s all part of life and I’m just enjoying this wild, crazy ride. If I died tomorrow, I’ve lived enough in the past couple months to know it was rich and fulfilling enough—that’s all I could ask for. (don’t worry Mom, I’m having way too much fun to leave this world anytime soon).
As I hit publish on this post, I’m sipping coffee in the lobby of a new hostel in the town of Da Lat in southern Vietnam. The locals here are the friendliest I’ve ever met and it’s a stark and welcome contrast to the streets of Hoi An. I have a good feeling about this place already. Let’s see what this week has in store…