Canary yellow houses, rickety wooden shops decorated with glowing silk lanterns, quaint riverside walkways, and mouthwatering Vietnamese cuisine: It’s no wonder Hoi An quickly became one of our favourite destinations in Vietnam.
Hoi An is highly regarded as an exceptionally well preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th – 19th centuries, virtually untouched by the American War. The town was once a base for trading treasures including high-end silks, fabrics, elephant tusks, Chinese medicines and more. Hoi An’s visible cultural pulse has been kept alive by it’s title of UNESCO World Heritage Site (as of 1999) and there are severe rules and regulations that must be followed in order to maintain and protect its heritage. For example, signage on shops is strictly monitored and the buildings must all be painted a beautiful mustard French yellow. The safeguarding of Hoi An’s history and culture made it feel like we were stepping back in time. The 21st century distraction of traffic and pollution are almost nonexistent within the Old Town, as its narrow lanes are for cyclists and pedestrians only.
Hoi An borders a beautiful beach and lies just 29km from Danang, but the heart of the town is the heritage laden Old Town, just a 10 minute cycle ride from our hotel. Our days in Danang had been restless so we were ready to do some exploring and get stuck in right away.
We purchased a ticket to enter the Old Town, although, as is the norm, no one checked it when we just wandered the streets or ate in the area. The ticket had five stubs that allowed entry in to just five of the 800+ historic buildings in Hoi An. It was tricky deciding which one’s to select but we consulted our trusty Lonely Planet and visited a variety of Assembly Halls, museums, pagodas and traditional houses. We were randomly able to enter some of them without our ticket (the ticket inspectors were sometimes absent so entrances was a little unclear and unregulated) resulting in us seeing a lot more than expected. Many of the buildings on display were once living spaces but are now museums. Centuries ago, each Chinese community who settled in Hoi An also built their own assembly halls for social gatherings, meetings and celebrations. We visited a handful of these, all elaborately decorated, and the air thick with incense.
Below: the Japanese Covered Bridge; emblematic of Hoi An and linking the Japanese and Chinese quarters together.
During our short period travelling, we developed a tendency to turn up to places when something exciting is going on. Hoi An was no different. The day we arrived happened to be the 14th day of the lunar month, when the town celebrates the Full Moon Festival. There were hoards of Vietnamese tourists all battling their way through the crowds to pray for good fortune at Quan Cong Pagoda. The queues for this pagoda wrapped round the street, but luckily the flocks of tourists subsided for our remaining couple of days and peace was restored.
Many of the museum and building displays were highly elaborate and beautifully decorated, however they lacked information, so perhaps some of the history was lost on us (a tour guide may have made the experience more worthwhile). We felt that the five stubbed ticket, plus the bonus few entries, was plenty for us to get our fill of the architecture (Hoi An features a combination of Vietnamese, Chinese, European and Japanese architecture, visible within all of the buildings we visited). What we enjoyed most was just milling around the charming lantern lined streets, taking in the atmosphere and popping into the range of appealing cafes and bakeries, eating way too many ice creams (we found one shop selling 60+ flavours) while spending lots of money on souvenirs and gifts. Hoi An is overflowing with shops selling beautiful local art work, photography, homeware, clothing, ceramics and jewellery. Our heads were constantly rotating as we shuffled down each alleyway, absorbing all of the captivating shop fronts and visiting 90% of them. Hoi An is unusual in its lack of souvenir tack; the majority of the shops were fair trade, employing and supporting local artisans with disabilities or disadvantaged backgrounds.
Hoi An is also know for it’s tailoring with many travellers squeezing in orders within a 48 hour period. The tailors are master copiers and can be shown a photo from a magazine that will be replicated almost identically. There are an overwhelming number of shops to choose from where fabrics are selected and made to measure. We didn’t utilise this service ourselves but some of the handmade leather shoes and bags were very tempting.
Picturesque Vietnamese countryside and water buffalo filled paddy fields surround Hoi An, so on day three we made the most of our hotel’s bikes and cycled along the meandering riverbank that led us to Cua Dai beach. New housing and hotels mix with the rice paddies here, but there was little to see aside from enjoying the sea views. Unfortunately the weather had turned again, bringing back the trauma of our rainy Danang days, so there was no swimming or sunbathing involved on this expedition.
Central Vietnam has arguably the most complex and flavoursome of cuisines in Vietnam. It definitely lived up to its reputation as Vietnam’s culinary mecca. The food was one of the highlights of the trip to Hoi An and we made sure to sample all of the delicious street food snacks on offer; the gooey mango rice cakes dusted in icing sugar, the crunchy caramelized peanut brittle, the fluffy sugar coated donuts, not forgetting the savoury rice paper shrimp parcels. We were spoilt for choice and ate like King’s while spending just pennies to fill our bellies. Making the most of Hoi An’s culinary scene involved constant grazing as we tried a variety of food we never new existed. ‘White rose’, a shrimp dumpling filled topped with crispy onions, and crispy fried wontons as well as ‘Cau Lao’, Japanese style noodles served with herbs and slices of roast pork, were just a handful of our favourite dishes, unique to Hoi An. But the real winner was the banh mi. We have always been a big fan of this Vietnamese sandwich but Hoi An was a game changer and blew every other banh mi we had tried out the water. We researched the best banh mi spots in the area (many of them with sizeable queues – always a good sign) and sampled three equally delicious street vendors during our time in Hoi An. The warm, crispy yet soft baguettes were crammed full with an assortment of marinated meats and pate, vegetables and herbs, and smothered in their special chilli and gravy sauces (moisture is the key). We’re still dreaming of Banh Mi Phuong who even chucked in some avocado to the already mind-blowing meaty mix.
Hoi An really comes alive at night as the light fades and the silk lanterns illuminate the town. We spent a lot of our time strolling along the glimmering riverbank where candle lit paper boats are sold for a small price to tourists and gently placed in the water. It created a magical, romantic atmosphere paired with the lively street music, games and food courtesy of the Full Moon Festival. We could have spent much longer ambling down the enchanting streets of Hoi An, eating our way through it’s restaurants, street vendors and food markets, but Ho Chi Minh City was calling and work was looming. Hoi An felt like the perfect escape before the reality of teaching crept closer.