I’ll just come right out and say it – Hoi An is by far, my favourite place in Vietnam (and I can say that as I’m writing this in Ho Chi Minh city, my last stop in Vietnam!). Though small and compact, I happily spent 3.5 days here and could’ve spent a couple of days more, exploring the beaches and Tra Que Herb Village which I unfortunately had no time to check out. I loved the activities I DID manage to do though, with my top 5 Hoi An experiences being:
1. Soaking up the atmosphere of the Old Town
Though tourists seem to almost outnumber the locals in the town, Hoi An’s Old Town has lost none of its traditional charm. Life here moves in the slow lane, with this town seemingly still stuck in the old ages, in a good way.
Hoi An is famous for its hand-made lanterns, which adorn all the main streets in the Old Town. Found in an array of colours and designs, the brighten up the street during the day but look even better at night when they are all lit up.
There are numerous cultural attractions to spend your time in, including the Japanese Bridge and various old houses and assembly halls. If that’s not your thing, rent a bicycle or hire a cyclo driver and explore the streets and river banks whilst being accompanied by gentle music playing on loudspeakers throughout the town!
Evenings are a special time in Hoi An, when the town really comes to life. Everyone seems to come out to play once the sun goes down and the lanterns are lit, with lots of activities to be had. Check out local performances and get-togethers, munching on some street food or buy a floating lantern for luck (to send down the river).
Be sure to head over the bridge to the An Hoi peninsula for the night market and stunning views of the warmly lit up streets of Hoi An from the opposite bank.
2. Getting something custom made
Hoi An is well known for being the town in Vietnam to get cheap, custom-fit clothes and shoes made, in a quick turnaround time. You can also get self-designed leather goods made, such as bags and wallets, again at a very decent price. There are a lot of tailors and craftsmen throughout the town offering such services for a range of prices to fit everyone’s budget, so you will be spoiled for choice. Choosing one will be tough, but remember that good quality will come at a higher price. Most of the tailors on the streets will only be for casual wear (rather than high-end business or formal attire).
I went crazy in Hoi An, especially once I made the mental decision to send a package back to UK (hence saving me from having to drag it around the rest of south east Asia!). I got some office suits, office shirts, party dresses, casual dresses and a leather satchel made. I spent a fair bit (as I went with one of the better tailors), but it was totally worth it as I find it quite difficult to find clothes that fit me well in the UK (being Asian and fairly small and short in size).
If you are thinking of getting fitted for clothes, be sure to go as early as possible since the tailors will clearly need a few days / fittings to get the job done perfectly.
3. Taking a cooking class
The food in Vietnam is fantastic. Though simple, the liberal use of herbs, vegetables and spices make each mouthful of food taste extremely tasty and fresh. To get a better idea of what goes into staple Vietnamese dishes, I would highly recommend signing up for one of the numerous cooking classes on offer in the town. Where possible, choose one which includes a guided walk through the fresh food market in town, as that was a definite highlight of the day. I paid about US$30 for a half-day session.
4. Visiting the My Son ruins
Located about an hour’s drive away from Hoi An, the My Son ruins is an ancient Cham city, similar to the ruins of Angkor Watt but on a much smaller scale. This UNESCO World Heritage site was heavily bombed by the Americans during the war, and as a result, only a fraction of the structures are still standing. Restoration efforts are however underway, though it is fair to say that the quality of the new build is incomparable to the original – how the Cham people stacked bricks and stone without seeming to use some form of cement or binding agent is still a mystery.
I paid about US$8 for a group tour with pick up from my hotel (excluding admission fees to the site). One really good thing I got out of this was meeting Alfred, an extremely interesting 58 year old Austrian who I proceeded to hang out with for the rest of the afternoon and evening. It was nice to have someone to do item no.5 with below. 🙂
5. Sampling the local delicacies
If a shop in the Old Quarter isn’t selling either clothes, shoes, lanterns or bags, it will probably be a restaurant of cafe. There are so many eating spots to choose from, catering to a range of budgets, that you will be absolutely spoiled for choice. If you don’t fancy having a proper sit down, try one of the street side stalls or buy something fresh from one of the wandering ladies carrying a yoke in a conical hat. Local delicacies to try include cao lầu, bánh bao vac (“white rose” dumplings) and bánh xèo.
If you are thinking of going to Vietnam, make sure to stop by Hoi An – you won’t regret it!