Spontaneity is truly the spice of life. An expression that is never more true than when traveling long term!
By sheer happenstance, we found ourselves in a fortuitous position whereby we took an impromptu private tour with a local man in stunning Hoi An, Vietnam.
This tour turned out to be one of the most fascinating days of our world adventure.
The extremely detailed insights into Vietnamese life that we learned in just those few short hours were worth more than the previous 29 other days we spent in Vietnam combined.
So without further ado, this is our experience with Mr. Phong, a local guy from a village close to Hoi An, a war veteran and loving family man.
Right Place, Right Time In Hoi An
We were lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, you just strike it lucky. The highlight of our Hoi An itinerary was a complete coincidence.
We had allocated 3 full days for Hoi An.
The plan was to spend one day exploring the countryside and beaches, one day walking around the town, get fitted at a tailor and generally soak up the lovely atmosphere.
We would take one day trip either to My Son or the Golden Bridge in the Ba Na Hills near Da Nang. Little did we know, Hoi An had other ideas for our visit.
The right place at the right time was a nothing more than a simple restaurant along the banks of Thu Bon river.
That night, the quaint town was bustling with couples taking romantic boat rides in the early evening. It was only our first night in Hoi An but we already loved the place.
Glowing lanterns of all colors illuminating yellow and wooden buildings, the perfect temperature cooling after a scorching hot day and a wonderfully laid back atmosphere definitely trick you into thinking that you have transported into another world.
Heading to Hoi An? Don’t miss our popular guide featuring things to do in Hoi An, Vietnam.
Our Chance Meeting Mr. Phong
The heart of Hoi An on an evening is centered around the bridge of lights, with heavy tourist footfall, a wonderfully laid back atmosphere and an enormous amount of dining options.
We were feeling a little jaded having driven 8 hours over the Hai Van Pass from Hue to Hoi An on motorbikes earlier that day.
So, we had opted for a quieter restaurant along the riverfront but a few buildings away from the crowd.
Somewhere between discussing the awesome Hai Van Pass, people watching and enjoying a celebratory cold beer, we were approached by an older man in the restaurant.
The man introduced himself as Mr. Phong.
He said he worked part time at the restaurant, but also conducted a rare private tour of his home in a village just outside of Hoi An.
He asked us in good English what our plans were for our time in town and suggested that we consider joining him at his home for a half day tour.
Deciding To Take A Chance
Initially we thought the situation seemed a bit strange, but we were intrigued, so we humored him. He held his finger up and said one moment.
Upon his return, Mr. Phong was struggling to carry 4 huge diaries that looked more like spell books straight out of Harry Potter!
After he dumped the books on the table and a poof of smoke rose like a mini volcanic eruption, we cracked the first one open.
Turns out these were personal notes from hundreds of tourists who had been going on his private tour. The notes continued all the way back to 2007.
Now that he had our full attention, we continued to read entry after entry. Each message was was a rave review!
Mr. Phong then articulated a brief outline of what his Hoi An tour would entail: a history lesson, homemade lunch followed by a tour of his home and village.
We were instantly convinced. It looked like the My Son ruins would have to wait until our next visit.
Our Hoi An Tour Begins With A Dodgy Motorbike Ride
How many times have you heard about or been involved in a dodgy motorbike ride in Vietnam?!
Fortunately, we were were now well versed in the art of Vietnam motorbike survival by the time we reached Hoi An.
Mr. Phong gave us simple instructions for the following morning: Be outside our Hoi An hotel at 9am on our motorbike, ready to move.
Luckily, the stickler for time among us (Kristen) made sure we were ready way ahead of time because Mr. Phong pulled up on his own motorbike at exactly 9am.
He appeared as a man exactly on time looking super smart in shirt and trousers.
We knew this was going to be a great day because we was right on time!
We had no idea what to expect, so we just followed along, weaving through traffic, hoping the locals wouldn’t crash into us.
After a few minutes we were out of town onto much wider open roads. We then crossed onto a highway which further tested our death dodging abilities (it’s not really that bad).
After a short time, we exited the highway and soon pulled off onto narrow roads again before finally arriving at what we assumed was Mr. Phong’s home.
As we entered a small compound with a fenced perimeter and concrete patio area, we couldn’t help but notice two separate buildings made up Mr. Phong’s land.
It was very peaceful and silent except for the distinctive sound of chickens clucking.
Once the chickens meandered away, all we could hear was the sound of the breeze rustling leaves on yet another hot day in Central Vietnam.
The Vietnamese Way Of Life
Mr. Phong welcomed us into his humble home as we walked through a huge rectangular concrete opening. We met his lovely daughter who brought out some water and snacks while our Vietnam life lesson began.
We were enlightened by Mr. Phong’s personal life as he explained his colorful past along with his knowledge of Vietnam’s history, beliefs, religion and culture.
He went on to discuss how most Vietnamese people believe in Confucianism but there are individuals who also follow other religions including Catholicism, Buddhism and Christianity.
We aren’t going to touch on religion here, but Confucianism teaches about the two fundamental principles of ensuring correct behavior and the importance of obedience.
Remembering Loved Ones
Now that we had a good understanding of the Vietnamese culture, it was time for the personal tour. Mr Phong showed us around his home and explained the story of each room.
We won’t go into too much detail about his house because this is his personal space.
However, we will go as far as saying it was roughly what we had pictured for rural Vietnam; despite the bright lights of Hoi An, this was still a developing country after all.
Next on the tour agenda was family life in Hoi An and Vietnam. In Vietnam, Family comes first hands down and we immediately learned about the strong respect each member of the family held for older generations.
Unfortunately, Mr Phong’s wife had passed away from cancer about a year prior to when we met him.
He explained that for the first two years afterwards, a large shrine with photographs, food and red candles would be on display in his home. Normally, we wouldn’t take a photo, but he insisted.
Birthdays are not typically celebrated, but “deathdays” are celebrated heavily in Vietnam. This is how Mr. Phong was celebrating the life of his wife.
The red candles represent the physical world, putting one in touch with the flesh.
Each day, he and several other family members would gather around her alter to say many prayers, to ask for help or anything else they needed.
Once two years have passed, the shrine will remain but the red candles will be switched with white to signify healing, harmony and wholeness of the spirit.
An extensive history of agriculture and farming in Vietnam followed as we learned all about famous rice paddies.
Farming was a way of life all throughout the country which included government funding through a points and credits system.
Vietnam And American War
Our favorite part of the day was when Mr. Phong discussed the Vietnam and American War including the role he played.
Despite everything he had just explained, this was the part of the tour where he really shone.
He detailed in great length about Ho Chi Minh’s journey around the world, as he developed his communist ideology and the plans he had for Vietnam in the years leading up to the beginning of the war.
Then Mr. Phong told us a fascinating story.
He pointed to the only other small building on his land, around 20 feet from his but within the same complex. “That’s where my uncle lives,” he said. “I had to fight against him during the war.”
We were stunned.
This poor man had been through some extremely difficult times. We couldn’t even begin to fathom being at war with a close family member on opposing sides?!
As the story goes, Mr. Phong was captured by enemy forces during the war. He was imprisoned close to Hue and the DMZ for over a year.
He was released from prison at the end of the Vietnam and American War. Now he lives next door to his uncle peacefully.
Almost on cue, Mr. Phong’s daughter entered for the second time, now carrying plates full of delicious spring rolls and morning glory. Wow!! Do they know how to make a spring roll in that house.
Mr. Phong also touched on some darker issues such as massacres and feuds with neighboring countries. But as sombre as it was to hear, his perspective was incredibly interesting to hear.
He explained his frustrations as media often ‘forgot’ about such massacres on an international scale.
The Hoi An Tour Goes External
We headed outside once we’d been filled with knowledge of a volatile history in Vietnam. It was sweltering hot, but he was kind enough to provide us with more water and some hand held fans.
He showed us some of the popular hideouts for the soldiers during the war. Most of these were along the riverbank deep down in the brush.
We asked him about the spirit houses which we had seen all over Vietnam. These are typically little houses with a small roofs sitting on top of a single pillar.
However, spirit houses can vary in size with some being large enough to walk through. He pointed to one special spirit house along the way which was built after a fatal motorbike accident.
The family who owned the land where the accident occurred created the spirit house for the two souls who perished in the crash.
The idea of the spirit house is to provide offerings as well as shelter to the lost souls.
We continue the tour walking past several houses and buildings. It is easy to see Mr. Phong is very fond of this village. This place is where he grew up, where his children grew up and now where his grandchildren are growing up.
We both were overjoyed to share in his excitement. We even met the local barber. After he woke up from sleeping in the chair.
Mr. Phong proceeded to take us to his friends farm for the next stop. We had passed many animals on our journey, but here we were able to pet the pigs.
There were so many little ones and we watched them all play with one another while they ate their lunch.
Farming is a way of life in Vietnam as rice production is still very labor intensive. We learned about the entire process of rice production after the crop is harvested from the field. Very Cool.
Let’s take a moment to talk about happy water. When you are traveling around Vietnam, the term will keep popping up.
At first we had no idea what this meant, but luckily we had already encountered our first happy water tasting trekking in Sapa, so we knew what to expect.
Happy water is rice wine, but in reality it’s more like a moonshine. Being a Brit and having a reputation to uphold, Mark accepted the challenge of drinking some happy water.
After one taste, he was devastated no one was around to witness him swigging the strong drink.
Mr. Phong’s Family Temple
Our penultimate stop was Mr. Phong’s family temple. In Vietnam, each family has their own temple where they go to pay their respects to their deceased ancestors.
Our favorite part about his family temple was the bright colors.
Mr. Phong’s demeanor altered a little as we entered, he was more serious and respectful.
As we looped back to our starting point following a narrow river, Mr. Phong pointed out several small craters both in the ground and in other surrounding temples.
These remnants were from the war where bombs had fallen and debris had scattered around the target areas.
Unfortunately, there are still three quarters of a million tons of unexploded ordnance all over Vietnam. People are still being killed even today due to the unknown locations of these explosives.
Finally, we headed to the local village food market. Here Mr. Phong explained this is where the family was able to purchase fruits, veggies and meat for all their needs.
We did have a few issues with mentally ill locals calling out at us but they were completely harmless. Mr. Phong said this was often the case because these individuals do not always get the care they need living out in the country.
We only mention it because as tourists we often don’t see rural areas and it’s important to understand there is more than Hoi An ancient town in the region.
Our Private Hoi An Tour Comes To An End
As we arrived to the end of our tour, Mr. Phong thanked us for allowing him to give us a true insight to Vietnamese life. But in truth, we were the grateful party.
He was such a lovely man, full of positivity and valuable knowledge that you simply can’t access unless you are able to spend a day with someone similar.
The whole experience was a direct contrast to the many who clearly try to take advantage of tourists, a breath of fresh air in a polluted world.
We then left our own diary entry in those “Harry Potter books” for all the fortunate travelers who follow us.
As he said goodbye, much to our surprise, we were escorted back to our moped and left to remember the way back to town!
Ah, we didn’t expect that!
At first, we weren’t sure if we could remember the way. So, I guess we’ll just wing it?
Thankfully, we made it back in one piece with no dramas. And we were so glad we did take the chance on Mr. Phong’s private Hoi An tour!
Out of respect for Mr. Phong’s Privacy, we have no indicated where he lives or the restaurant we met him in.
Dec 2022 Update: One of readers has confirmed Mr. Phong is no longer accepting tours and is now officially retired. We are extremely happy to hear he is doing well so here’s to a long enjoyable retirement for Mr. Phong! You deserve it!
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We hope our experience with Mr. Phong inspires you to take a trip to Vietnam!
Please let us know if you have any questions about the Hoi An or Vietnam in the comments below.
Mark and Kristen
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Mark and Kristen Morgan are travel, hiking and photography experts. Over the last 6 years traveling full time, they have explored more than 40 countries and 30 US states.
Their work has been featured in USA Today, Gestalten, Get Your Guide, CityPASS and Condé Nast Traveler along with various other publications.