Hoi An: A Revived Old Beauty

66 comments
Asia, Southeast, Vietnam

Walking Around Hoi An’s Old Town After Dark

Four hours after leaving the onetime imperial capital of Hue, we arrived at the outskirts of our final destination in central Vietnam. The pockmarked roads were quite a contrast to the smooth streets of Da Nang, the country’s third largest city. We were in fact just a few minutes away from the center of Hoi An, a former trading post whose glory days had passed several centuries ago. I had imagined Hoi An to have a similar ambiance with Luang Prabang, a charming and peaceful small city in Laos with an old town district dotted with temples built in traditional architectural style and handsome colonial buildings. However, only after we entered the historical center of Hoi An did I realize how much busier the city is.

Visiting Hoi An was an idea from James, my perennial travel buddy who has a deep interest in colonial architecture and heritage, as well as old trading ports and forts. While the city’s proximity to the ancient ruins of My Son was the main reason for me to stay there, I kept my expectations of Hoi An low for I knew it has become a popular place among tourists these days. On our first night, we walked down the narrow streets lined with pretty old buildings – many of them turned into boutiques and restaurants – a vibrant streetscape festooned with colorful traditional lanterns overhead, all the way to the most iconic landmark of the city: the Japanese covered bridge.

Despite its modest size, the centuries-old bridge was a sight to behold. Every single part of it was illuminated: its stone piers in bright green, while the rest of the structure in more natural warm light. The calm water underneath, a tributary of the Thu Bon River, mirrored the tableau of light above its surface. Moments later, a small boat emerged out of the darkness and slowly glided toward the bridge, rippling through the otherwise placid canal. A couple donning Vietnamese wedding costumes tried their best to strike romantic poses at the behest of the photographer. Between the love birds and the man with a huge camera, dozens of candles – each placed inside a small container – were waiting to be released into the river.

Hoi An’s romantic ambiance didn’t end there. We strolled across the river, via a bridge packed with tourists, each and every one of them trying to capture the city’s low-rise skyline peppered with twinkling street lights, lanterns, and those coming from the riverside restaurants and shops. Some people chose to sit on the river banks, enjoying the beautiful reflections of the city on the water where tiny red specks of candles slowly floated away to the open sea. Hoi An’s waterfront promenade at dusk is an atmospheric place to wander around, to people-watch, or simply to contemplate, for its beauty and tranquility can either recharge or soothe one’s mind and body. Surely it had the same effect on my mind, although to me recharging wouldn’t mean anything without good food. So off we went to the city’s market filled with food stalls with a broad selection of hearty Vietnamese dishes in a no-frills setting.

Colorful Lanterns Over Lively Streets

Quan Cong Temple at Night

The Centuries-Old Japanese Covered Bridge, Hoi An’s Most Iconic Landmark

Hoi An’s Charming Skyline and the Thu Bon River

Pick A Stall for Dinner

Delicious-Looking Spring Rolls

Mi Quang at Hoi An’s Central Market

Hoi An’s charming old shop houses are a testament to its significance in the past as an important trading port in the South China Sea. Established as a harbor of the Hindu-Buddhist Champa Empire, it further rose to prominence under the Nguyen lords – rulers of southern and central Vietnam after Champa had been subdued by the Viet people – who had a great interest in commerce. This in fact occurred at a time when European merchants began exploring trade opportunities in Asia, which would eventually lead to their colonization of many parts of the continent. The Portuguese were the first who came, followed by the Spanish and the French.

The Japanese joined in and set up a settlement in Hoi An. To connect their enclave to the Chinese merchant communities which had by then been very well established in the port city, the Japanese built a covered bridge in the late 16th century, creating Hoi An’s most recognizable landmark. Apart from practical reasons, the construction of this ornate bridge might have also been intended as a gesture of peace between the two communities, hailing from two of Asia’s superpowers which have been fierce enemies throughout history. The Japanese carried on trade activities in Hoi An for decades until the implementation of a strict isolationist policy by the shogun in an attempt to curb the influence of European powers as well as the spread of Christianity in Japan. Consequently the Japanese were barred from leaving their country and those already on foreign soil had to return, including the ones in Hoi An.

The bridge was fortunately not abandoned as responsibility for the structure was passed to the remaining Chinese communities and also the local Vietnamese, who later added a small temple on the bridge dedicated to the god of weather. Hoi An continued to be a thriving port for more than a century until 1835 when the xenophobic emperor Minh Mang closed his realm from the Europeans, except for Da Nang, 24 kilometers to the northwest of Hoi An. Hoi An’s importance waned, and what was once a cosmopolitan trading port gradually turned into a sleepy backwater.

However, this seemingly catastrophic turn of events for commerce in Hoi An eventually saved the city during the American War (the Vietnam War) which saw the old imperial capital of Hue and the ancient ruins of My Son heavily bombed by U.S. airstrikes. Hoi An’s significance in the past made it an important trading port in the region, yet its insignificance in the 19th century helped avert its large-scale destruction. In 1999, long after the war ended, Hoi An was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and following the same pattern as other UNESCO-listed sites, this formerly sleepy city has witnessed a surge in tourist numbers. Hoi An has once again become a lively city. Only this time it is filled with tourists of all nationalities, not merchants from faraway lands.

Calmer Water in the Morning

Local Women with Their Boats

A Fisherman Tending to His Net

Making Sure the Net is Ready for Another Catch

Enjoying A Vietnamese-Style Alfresco Breakfast

A Quieter Hoi An when Most Visitors are Probably Still in Bed

Eat Where the Locals Go

Simple Yet Satisfying Com Ga (Chicken Rice)

Waiting for Customers

A Propaganda Poster Showing that Everyone is Well-Fed in This Country

It is easy to lament the rapid change of a place because of tourism. However, a walk around the city’s historical center early the next morning proved that Hoi An is still very much home to the locals as much as it is an attractive tourist destination. Most boats were moored, and the boatmen were either fixing their fishing nets or having breakfast with their local friends. A few tourists who were already awakened from their slumber, including us, were presented with scenes of a bustling market where fresh vegetables, fruits and fish were on display, sold mostly to locals to make dishes for their families at home or for tourists.

A Vietnamese blogger who goes by the name Len once mentioned how different Hoi An was fifteen years ago as its old town was a collection of decaying houses lining dirty streets. No colorful lanterns were in sight, and neither were the small boats that are now ubiquitous on the Thu Bon River. Tourism, it appears, has brought life back to this corner of central Vietnam, along with it the revitalization of old merchant houses and a major clean-up of its streets. The assembly halls of the city’s Chinese communities – including the Cantonese, Fujian (Hokkien) and Hainanese – are now brimming with curious visitors. Keeping the city’s cultural identity amid the growing number of foreign arrivals will certainly be an increasingly contentious issue among its stakeholders. But what happened in November 2017, seven months after our visit, was definitely a wake-up call that there will be even greater challenges Hoi An must face in the years to come.

That November, Typhoon Damrey wreaked havoc and brought a large amount of rainfall to Hoi An, killing more than 100 people and injuring many others. The powerful typhoon caused days of incessant torrential rain in the city, forcing businesses to close and tourists to remain indoors as the swollen Thu Bon burst its banks and flooded the streets. Things must have gradually returned to normal by now, but for sure this recent natural disaster acts as a sobering reminder that this revived old beauty of central Vietnam is not to be taken for granted.

The Eastern Entrance to the Japanese Covered Bridge

A Small Temple Attached to the Bridge

A Dog Statue Signifying the Year When the Bridge Was Completed

Inside the Temple at the Bridge

Crowds Begin to Gather Outside the Bridge

Built by the Japanese to Connect Their Enclave to the Chinese Merchant Communities

A Handsome Old Building Built During Hoi An’s Heyday

A Morning Stroll along the Near-Empty Streets

Hoi An’s Central Market

A Mosaic Dragon Sculpture at the Cantonese Assembly Hall

One of the Altars at the Cantonese Assembly Hall

An Unintentional Take on Multiracial Harmony, the Cantonese Assembly Hall

The Gate to the Assembly Hall of the Fujianese, One of Many Chinese Communities in the City

A Well-Dressed Guardian Lion

Dragon Carving, the Fujian Assembly Hall

The 18th-Century Temple at the Fujian Assembly Hall

Principal Deities Worshiped at the Temple

Traditional Patterns at the Roof’s Edge

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

66 thoughts on “Hoi An: A Revived Old Beauty”

    • Thank you, Maurizio! I miss the country too; its ancient temples, historical monuments, and the food… there are many reasons to go back.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Another fascinating post! There is so much to learn from your blog with its focus on travel, culture and history. The post on Hoi Ann is no exception. Thank you, Bma!

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    • Much appreciated, Peter! Hoi An is a success story on how tourism, if managed properly, can transform a place for the better.

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  2. Pingback: Hoi An: A Revived Old Beauty – Timeless Wisdoms

    • Now I know why a lot of people really love Hoi An. For me its old houses, the local food, and the ambiance were the things I enjoyed the most in the city.

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    • You’re welcome, Debra. The fact that we went there in dry season, not in the middle of rainy season, definitely played a big part in shaping our positive impression of the city.

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    • That’s true, Edwin. My favorite time of the day in Hoi An was early in the morning when it wasn’t too hot and the streets were still relatively empty, hence more flexibility in taking a lot of photos.

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  3. We love, love Hoi An and consider it home. We lived there for 6 months, it was our very first stop in SEAsia on a two year nomadic journey, and we have returned many times after. We never ever tire of it. Love the people, the architectire, the food, the market!!!

    We lived through a typhoon, it was pretty scary and our roof crashed in but luckily we were on a lower floor…the next day everyone in the city and in the organic farm we lived on ( Tra Que ) got cracking with Vietnamese efficiency and in less than a day, things got almost back to normal. We have also experienced the flooding that happens there every rainy season. Your photos are glorious and made me feel intensly homesick. I think we wrote more posts on our blog about our time in Hoi An and in Vietnam, than anywhere else!
    We loved My Son too.

    Peta

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    • Lucky you to have lived in this charming town for six months with all those delicious Vietnamese dishes at your doorstep. I’m actually surprised when you said that the Vietnamese people do things in an efficient way because I always thought that all Southeast Asians are somewhat more laid back and less organized that their East Asian counterparts. If things are managed properly in the years to come we all shouldn’t be surprised when one day Vietnam becomes a thriving economic power in the region. We did see an ugly sight in Hoi An though: one morning as we stepped out of our hotel we saw a white man sleeping on the curb of the corner of our street. Either he had a rough night or he had too much fun, we couldn’t tell for sure. But I think he should’ve known that many things can be quite differently perceived in other parts of the world, including drunkenness. Still, my memories of Hoi An are overwhelmingly positive.

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    • Hi Trees. It’s been a while! You should visit Vietnam, it’s a beautiful and fascinating country. Harus ke sana. 🙂

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  4. If you felt Hoi An too full of tourists, consider yourself lucky. I was there during Tet and woke at midnight to fireworks and the following morning bus loads of people who arrived for the day. The crowds inspired a long hike out of town.

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    • I guess if it’s peace and tranquility one is looking for when visiting Hoi An, he/she should really consider not going there during Tet. Having been living in Indonesia for more than 30 years I’m kind of used to hearing loud fireworks and firecrackers in the middle of the night, not only at NYE but also at certain religious festivals. That’s why when I travel I usually prefer places that are quieter than home.

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      • I was seven weeks in Vietnam; Tet fell in the middle of my visit. Didn’t mind really as I had a great day out of town and unlike you, live in a VERY quiet place.

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      • Wow, seven weeks in Vietnam sounds like a dream trip! You know how many people there are in Java; I remember when I was in Germany I was amused by how quiet the streets were, and I wasn’t even in the countryside.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. What an exquisite looking place! It’s interesting to read that Hoi An is busier than Luang Prabang (I found LB quite busy but totally charming too). It’s worth it to get up early in these places!

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    • To be fair I went to Luang Prabang six years ago, so I guess it’s become busier now. However, I’d love to go back there to see what have changed and what haven’t. As for getting up early, I myself am an early riser despite being on a holiday. Being my travel companion certainly is not easy. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Bama, this was so interesting. Despite there being what I consider to be an overwhelming amount of tourists, you were really able to get a lot out of this experience – good work! Sometimes one competes with other tourists to see and experience places on a trip. Regarding history, I am watching The Vietnam War by Ken Burns right now and he mentions a lot of the history you write about that led up to the Vietnam War. Even though it may come as obvious, I am always bewildered and shocked to discover how much of history is interconnected. Furthermore, I have taken up a new interest in Asian culture and cuisine, having made new friends from Taiwan, Vietnam, China, Korea and the Philippines who are based here in LA. This post with its factual tidbits will be a great resource for the many conversations I have with them regarding their home countries.

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    • Nowadays we have to accept the fact that some places have already become so popular before we get the chance to see them. That’s why I always budget a few days in each place/city that I visit so I can plan out the best timing to go to the most interesting places during my stay. Having said that, there are indeed times when there’s no other way than joining the crowd instead of avoiding them.

      We are more interconnected than we think we are. That’s exactly what I learned from a lot of my past travels, especially from the six-month trip across seven Asian countries that I did with my best friend three years ago. You’re lucky to live in such a multicultural city like LA where the opportunities to connect with people from different background are presented in a daily basis. Thanks for reading and sharing your interesting thoughts as always, Jess!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I think out of all the places in Vietnam, Hoi An is the one that attracts me the most. It looks so romantic and beautifully aged.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Honestly I wasn’t that interested in visiting Hoi An prior to that trip to central Vietnam last year. So I was pleasantly surprised to find out that it was actually a very charming place. To think that not too long ago this was a sleepy town filled with derelict buildings is really eye-opening; such is the effect of tourism when it’s done right.

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    • Those pretty colors provided a beautiful backdrop for everything in this very atmospheric town. Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Hoi An looks sooo chinese!

    I think I have same interests to James, but I don’t really learn the history of the buildings. I just love seeing them, try to learn the architecture, and taking pictures of them 😀

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    • He successfully made me more interested in the history of old buildings across Asia, and I think I managed to turn him into an ancient-temples admirer. 😀

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  9. Fabulous post Bama. One of your best I think. I love the photographs and the narrative had me wishing all over again that we’d gone there.
    Alison

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    • Wow, thanks a lot, Alison! Next time you’re in Vietnam you might want to explore its central regions — I fell in love with this part of the country.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. Fascinating post as always, Bama! You have nicely summed up the history of this charming old town. Looking at your photos, I couldn’t realise the “ghost town” that I once visited. Hoi An now is lively and full of colour 🙂 But as a foreign visitor, do you think that the town has become too commercial?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Much appreciated, Len! Actually on my first night I did feel that some parts of Hoi An’s old district were a bit too commercialized. However, the next morning it showed its other side which I prefer. I can see the same revitalization process happening in the old quarters of some of Indonesia’s urban areas, and it would certainly be very encouraging to see people returning to these once-forgotten corners of their cities.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Marilyn! The Vietnamese food is enough reason for me to go back there, but of course there are ancient ruins, impressive palaces, beautiful French colonial buildings, inspiring landscapes, and many other things that make Vietnam a great travel destination.

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  11. I very much enjoyed reading this Bama. I first went to Vietnam 11 years ago, and Hoi An was one of my favourite places.

    I absolutely loved it!

    I was there for a month. I flew from the North to the South and then took the train back up again. I had a most marvellous time and would be most happy to visit again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wonder how much calmer Hoi An was when you went there. Sounds like you had a lot of time to explore Vietnam — I’ve only been to the south and central regions. Actually on my first trip to the country, I wasn’t really impressed. Only after I decided to give Vietnam a second try did I ‘discover’ that charm people have been talking about.

      Thanks for reading, Victoria!

      Liked by 2 people

      • It was pretty nice. We went sailing, went to a cookery course & even went to the theatre! I tried to get couple of things made too. I had a couple of shirts made and a smart suit made for celebration events. I loved it and had it for quite a few years!

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Bama it seems That our four days in Vietnam just scratched the surface. You have me dreaming of a return. This time no bikes though. Just too humid and hot for this Canadian.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your recent trip to Vietnam was still longer than mine; It was in the summer in 2011 and I spent just two nights in Saigon as part of my hectic trip across three Southeast Asian countries in just one week. I don’t think I’ll ever do that again, although that means it will take more time for me to eventually visit the places I want to see the most.

      Speaking of the heat, yes, even for me who has been living in a tropical country for my entire life Vietnam was really hot!

      Liked by 2 people

      • Well that is reassuring Bama. I admit I was hot from the moment we landed in Bangkok until leaving Vietnam three weeks later.

        Liked by 2 people

  13. Hoi An is firmly on my ‘to-do’ list, ever since it managed to shut up even that non-stop moaner of Jeremy Clarkson in their Vietnamese special! It’s true that, perhaps, tourism has changed it a little bit, but – like Galle in Sri Lanka – if it’s rescued the city from the danger of being abandoned, or flattened down and turned in yet another Benirdorm, what’s not to like?

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    • Ha! It must be interesting to watch — I’ll see if I can find that episode on YouTube. Your comparison of Hoi An with Galle is spot on; tourism has saved old buildings in both places from being razed as is the case with those in many Asian cities. Actually I only learned about Benidorm a few months ago, and it looks horrible! Some parts of Bali’s Kuta Beach have a similar feel and look, but fortunately many places on the island still retain their old charm.

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  14. Lovely photographs as always. I’m heartened to find a place tourism has managed to help rather than harm. Hopefully Hoi An will continue to manage that delicate balance between hosting visitors and maintaining local interests.

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    • Thank you! From what I saw the effect of tourism for Hoi An has been quite the opposite of what it has turned places like Venice and Barcelona into (at least based on what I read since I’ve never been to either cities). Hopefully the city can stay on this positive trend so all of its stakeholders will benefit from this.

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  15. I was cataloguing all the excellent night photos in my head as I read, but they were soon outdone by the daytime shots, which gave me an even clearer view of Hoi An’s charms. This has been on my list to see for a while now, and your favorable review after going in a little skeptically gives me even more assurance that this is a place I need to see. I must comment on the fishing net photos! First of all, they are both beautifully ephemeral shots; I love how the net softens everything around it. And secondly, wow – what a huge net it is! I can’t even imagine how one guy can control it! Great post, Bama.

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    • Much appreciated, Lex! In fact I was also a bit skeptical prior to my visit to Hoi An — my friends’ photos from that part of Vietnam mostly show its colorful lanterns at night. But that first night when we walked around the old district was the moment I began enjoying the city. It was busy but not in the way that it made me want to leave it right away. It was lively, vibrant, laidback… just very enjoyable in general. You know, that shot of the fishing net is among my personal favorites. And if you noticed, the color of the fishing net matches that of the old buildings.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Reading this post felt like I was on an actual tour there. Your way with words, combined with your stunning photos, really paints a vivid picture of the place with all its characters 🙂

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    • Really appreciate your kind words, Dixie. Hoi An was a very charming place to begin with, so writing about it was rather enjoyable.

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  17. Minggu lalu saya berlibur ke Luangprabang, dan kota itu mengasyikan banget. Semua bangunan tua di sana bikin ngiler dan rasanya nggak mau keluar dari kota tsb hehehe. Setelah baca tulisan kerenmu tentang Hoi An jadi semakin mupeng dan pingin jelajahin semua list UNESCO World Heritage Site di Asia Tenggara deh. 😀

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    • Suasana Luang Prabang masih adem ayem tenang dan santai gak, Halim? Soalnya itu yang paling saya ingat dari trip saya ke sana. Benar-benar kota untuk melepas kepenatan tanpa perlu melakukan hal-hal yang menguras energi. Kalau memang ada rencana mau ke Hoi An, jangan kaget ya sama ramenya. Meskipun populer, Hoi An tetap cantik dan mempesona kok.

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      • Luang Prabang masih tenang dan santai aktivitasnya. Penduduknya pun nggak jutek-jutek hehehe. Sungai Han dan Mekong masih memesona juga. Salut ama kota yang mau memelihara kota tuanya sehingga nyaman dikunjungi kek gitu. Sepertinya Hoi An pasti akan jadi wish list wajibku kalau berlibur ke Vietnam lagi. 🙂

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      • Ah senangnya… ternyata Luang Prabang masih kayak waktu aku ke sana dulu. Semoga nanti sempat ke Hoi An ya kalau kamu ke Vietnam lagi.

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  18. seraphsun says:

    I have always wanted to visit Hoi An. What a beautiful place. And you capture its beauty with your photos too.

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    • Thank you, Seraph. Hoi An is among the most atmospheric places in Southeast Asia that I’ve ever been to. So yes, you should go!

      Liked by 1 person

  19. Hoi An was everything I had hoped it would be – a gorgeous riverside old town with so much charm and color. It was crowded, yes, especially since we went over the Easter holidays, but not overly so and not to the point where it was a hassle to get around. I love the fact that it still retains its authenticity and remains geared toward local people and not just tourists. And the street food! That was easily the best Vietnamese cuisine I have ever had the pleasure to eat. Bama, thanks for this wonderful stroll down memory lane.

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    • Thanks for suggesting Hoi An, James. Had I traveled alone, I might have skipped this old town and opted for staying near My Son instead. I would say Hoi An is among the most atmospheric and charming places I’ve ever been in Southeast Asia, something I didn’t expect at all. That morning stroll around the old town was probably my favorite time in Hoi An, although walking underneath those colorful lanterns at night was quite pleasant as well. And the food… oh the food is enough reason to go back!

      Liked by 1 person

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