The first time I ever saw a picture of Hoi An, Vietnam I knew I would fall in love. After this trip, it has easily become my favorite Vietnam destination. Maybe it was the quaintness of the town, with its canary yellow buildings draped in vines of bougainvillea, or was it they way the sunlight danced on the waterlogged rice paddies come mid-afternoon? I can’t put my exact finger on why I fell in love first place, but there is a warmth to Hoi An that doesn’t exist anywhere. It’s the supreme spot for any cultural enthusiast. The well-preserved coastal town was once a booming commercial port in its heyday full of passing merchants who later became full-fledged migrants. Down every narrow lane flanked by row after row of French Colonial-style buildings, you’ll come to learn that Hoi An is a sum of all its parts. Silk lanterns of Japanese origin dangle from treetops while majestic carved dragons stand guard of ornamented temple gateways. Both stylized Chinese characters and Vietnamese print with its diacritics welcome visitors to most shops. As the number of tourists begin to overwhelm the Ancient Town’s small confines, ambling around the town may not be the most intimate of experiences but give the city full permission to captivate you and you’ll be surprised with what you discover.
1. Visit the Ancient Town at night
I couldn’t help but think of Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” song when walking around Ancient Town at night. When the sun goes down, Ancient Town comes alive as lanterns are turned on all over the city. The spectacle of silk orbs glowing warmly is enough to even enchant the most unsentimental individual. The tradition of hanging lanterns originated in the 16th century from Japanese merchants who hung lanterns outside their homes for luck. The locals then adopted the practice and the lanterns have been a mainstay of the cityscape ever since. Paper lanterns lit with candles purchased from sweet old ladies by the river banks are seen floating down the Thu Bon River. Every surface of the town is bedecked in an ethereal glow, like an eternal dream. Want to recreate your very own light show at home? Simply head to the An Hoi Peninsula across the river. The Night Market to the right of the footbridge offers the best prices for these silk lanterns. Make sure to compare prices among the shops before buying.
2. Slurp up a sweet bowl of Cao Lau
The signature dish of Hoi An is none other than cao lau, pronounced cow- low (like the word “ow!”) This bowl of noodles is in essence, Hoi An, representing French, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Chinese elements. From barbecued pork inspired by Chinese char siu to heavy, thick noodles similar to Japanese udon noodles; from crunchy squares of deep-fried cao lau dough to a smattering of fresh herbs from the region, you’ll find the city’s diversity coexisting harmoniously in one tasty blend. The star of the show are the noodles, an ingredient unique to Hoi An. According to legend, real cao lau can only be made from water drawn from the legendary Ba Le Well. Locals tend to laugh off this claim but there’s nothing like a good story to accompany a yummy bowl of noodles. What can be confirmed is that the noodles do indeed have a special taste, coming from lye water, which are used to boil the noodles. Lye water is obtained from the ash of fragrant trees growing in this area. My cao lau spot was Mot Hoi An (150 Tran Phu Street), a tiny eatery directly across from Reaching Out Tea House (see #4.)
3. Tailor some custom threads
For those planning an itinerary specifically around shopping, Hoi An will be your undoing. Hoi An is a mecca for custom made apparel tailored at stunningly low costs (compared to our home countries.) In under 48 hours (24 hour turn around rate is also available at some shops,) you get to go home with your very own outfit made specifically for your body type. The most popular of services happens to be men’s suits, which is truly a great investment and all men should splurge. There are over 200 clothing shops in Hoi An and it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. The best way to avoid that feeling of panic is to come prepared and know which shops are reputable. This is important become some shops do not actually tailor their clothes on site, but send them out to mass garment factories (a euphemism to sweat shops) where they are poorly made by workers being abused by greedy overseers.
We chose Be Be Tailors (with three locations: 11 Hoang Dieu Street (the flagship store), 95 Phan Chau Trinh Street, and 40 Tran Hung Dao Street) not only for their great reviews on Trip Advisor, but also because their main branch houses their factory and you can actually seethe tailoring happening behind a glass wall. Being given transparency for working conditions is a-okay in my book and they created Tim’s three-piece suit with a custom-fit undershirt for $275 in two day’s time. #winning
4. Sit in silence at the Reaching Out Tea House
Back in March, my friend Cait highly recommended a visit to Hoi An’s Reaching Out Tea House (131 Tran Phu Street) not only because I love tea, but because it’s run by a hearing impaired staff. I had forgotten this advice but luckily, my friend Massimo was also given the same tip and made it our mission to find it. I’m so glad at least one of us remembered because visiting this tea house was one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had in Vietnam thus far. This tea house is under the management of Reaching Out, a nonprofit dedicated to providing opportunities for people with disabilities to learn skills and gain meaningful employment.
The tea house is a haven for solitude, encouraging visitors to practice quietness. In order to communicate with the waitstaff, each table comes equipped with wooden blocks labeled with requests. The tea house is not visibly advertised as a social enterprise so your decision to participate as a wandering guest starts only from the moment you sit down. While we were enjoying our tea, we noticed people walk in and out, not realizing the premise of the tea house unless they were were astute enough to pay attention to the details. You can order a specific kind of tea or coffee or opt for a full tasting set of either beverage. I went for the green tea, which is usually really mild, but their pots of tea are much stronger I’m accustomed to. The teas and coffees come with a single serving of one of the shop’s handmade pastries. Do good on your travels and relish in a quiet joy rarely felt nowadays.
5. Marvel at the Japanese Covered Bridge
The most iconic of all attractions in Hoi An, the Japanese Covered Bridge (on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai) in varying shades of earth tones, is surrounded in legend. The bridge was built in the 16th century by the Japanese community in Hoi An to link their side of the city with that of the Chinese. But another circulated tale is that the bridge was in actuality constructed in an effort to subdue a terrifying ‘mamazu’ dragon monster whose head was located in India and its tail in Japan. A seer advised that in order to quell the earthquakes that plagued the region, a bridge should be built over the dragon’s heart, located right in the center of Hoi An, to pin the shaking beast. Skeptics aside, the original ornamentation of this weathered bridge has been respected over the centuries and never altered. Look for the dog and monkey sculptures flanking the entryways. Fun fact: many Japanese emperors were born in the years of the Monkey and Dog (there is no such thing as coincidence in Asian mythology) were years and also, records indicate that the bridge was built in the year of the Dog and completed in the year of the Monkey.
- For those looking for a beach day, Hoi An has only one real beach anymore: An Bang Beach. While Cua Dai Beach is still mentioned in guide books, it recently eroded away, leaving behind abandoned beachfront properties looking over heaps of sandbags. At An Bang Beach, you can rent a beach chair for 50,000 VND and order drinks from nearby restaurants from the comfort of your seat but it’s almost always packed.
- To sample other delicacies of the central region besides cao lau, head to Pho Xua on 35 Phan Chau Trinh Street for some white rose dumplings and mi quang, a noodle-salad soup hybrid.
- Most accommodations provide free bikes. Use them to see the surrounding pastoral area, which is littered with dreamy scenes of rural Vietnam, from fisherman floating down streams to the water buffaloes grazing away in the rice paddies.
- Back in the day, Anthony Bourdain visited Hoi An and crowned Banh Mi Phuong as the best banh mi in Vietnam. Others say the real queen is the actual queen of banh mi, Madam Khanh (her legit nickname is The Banh Mi Queen.) And thus, an official banh mi war was born. I’ll tell you my pick if you tell me yours 😉
Things to avoid
- A ticket into Ancient Town is NOT compulsory. The ticket stand at the top of Le Loi either dissuades tourists from entering the ancient town or irritates them to say the least as it costs 120,000 VND for international visitors and 80,000 VND for locals. In actuality, this ticket is meant to be used to enter 5 out of the 21 official attractions of their choice, such as museums and the Japanese Covered Bridge, but simply walking around town should be free.
- On the main road from An Bang Beach to the Ancient Town, a gentleman sits day in and out on his water buffalo. Tourists (like myself) come up to take a picture and he then immediately, he asks for money. I asked for permission first and he conceded but never mentioned a payment. You can take free pics of water buffaloes all around. Trust me, they are everywhere.
- Don’t fall trap to commission seekers, women and men who will approach you to take you to “the best” tailor shop in town. The most polite and easy way to refuse them is to say you’ve already tailored an outfit. Going into town with a shop name is very helpful to feel overwhelmed.
- Renting a motorbike in Hoi An costs $6 a day. And it should cost 50,000 VND to fill your tank. There aren’t a ton of gas stations in town to begin with so when we found one, we thought nothing of it. Tim gave the gasoline attendant 50,000 VND and when he turned his tank on, it was only HALFWAY full. How to avoid this scam: ask the pump operator to set the meter to zero before filling up.
- When visiting An Bang beach, do not pay for bike parking. The parking lots should be free however, there are some locals who will approach you and ask for a parking fee. When Tim and I parked there, they quoted him 20,000 VND! We gave the 10,000 VND begrudgingly but as we walked nearer to the beach, we realized there were free parking bays without attendants. Never pay for bike parking.
On the accommodation front – Actually, a large reason why I loved Hoi An so much was because of my stay at Christina’s Hoi An, an Airbnb resort! You read that right! An Airbnb resort! It was pretty surreal. About a 3-km bike ride from the Ancient Town and a 1-km ride to An Bang Beach in the Tra Que Village area is Christina’s Vietnam Hoi An property. Sporting twenty-two rooms with a 24/7 staff, as well as an on-site eatery called the Joi Factory (with a free breakfast buffet and cooking classes) and an infinity pool, it’s the very definition of paradise. I learned about them when I went on a Onetrip adventure to the Cu Chi tunnels. Onetrip is the tour company they also run, which has tours to the My Son Sanctuary and a secret waterfall. I’ll be writing a fuller review of this spot in an upcoming series, “Cool Digs.” The rooms start at $50.
There you have it! I’m no missing my latest whereabouts but I hope it helps with planning! Check out my ‘Things to Do in Ho Chi Minh City’ and other Vietnam posts! xoxo Izzy