If I had to pick a favourite place in South East Asia, it wouldn’t be a difficult choice. Hoi An, a small town in central Vietnam, has stolen my heart completely. Here, you can experience the perfect mix of beach life and cultural attractions. And I’m firmly convinced that you’re going to love it too!
All day long the bright colours of Hoi An’s buildings gleam impressively, they are a fusion of Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese architecture. But the town, located on the River Thu Bon, only begins to show its true beauty as the sun goes down. The lanterns and muted lighting create their own, unique display of light. There’s nothing more beautiful than wandering through Hoi An’s night markets, watching the floating candles on the river and sampling Vietnamese specialties in exceptional restaurants. And who knows… maybe you’ll leave this charming place with a new, perfectly tailored suit among your favourite clothes, you won’t find a more extensive selection of tailors anywhere else!
Hoi An is situated in central Vietnam, on the delta of the River Thu Bon. In my opinion, the best way to explore Vietnam is to do a round trip through the country, starting in Hoi Chi Minh City in the south, and travelling northwards up to Hanoi. You can fly into Hoi Chi Minh City and Hanoi direct from London Heathrow, and from either of these two airports you can take a flight to Da Nang airport (around 30km from Hoi An). Check out the best deals on my Flight Fare Finder! Alternatively, you can make your way via public transport such as trains or buses from Hanoi or Hoi Chi Minh City to Hoi An.
In Hoi An, there are accommodation options to suit everyone’s taste and budget. As all the sights can be seen on foot or by bike, I recommend that you look for somewhere central to stay. You’ll be well-looked after at the 2.5 Star Flower Garden Homestay, where you can stay in a Superior Room for just £19 per night, or at the 4* Hoi An Historic Hotel, where a Superior Room will also set you back just £53 per night! Alternatively, you can search out a luxurious private property yourself on AirBnB!
Discover the Old Town
Wow… the old town here is simply beautiful! And you would expect nothing less, since the town of 75,000 residents is UNESCO-listed and has been named a World Cultural Heritage site. During the 16th century, Hoi An grew to become Vietnam’s most important trading port, and was a hub for trade with Japan and China. The main trading goods included expensive silk, porcelain and Chinese medicine. Around this time, many sailors settled down in the area and the town grew in size. European sailors were also drawn to the area, coming from countries such as Portugal, the Netherlands, England and France, to purchase these valuable goods. Towards the end of the 19th century, Hoi An’s port rapidly lost significance, as trade shifted to coastal cities around the area now known as Malaysia.
Luckily, Hoi An escaped serious damage during the Vietnam war and the unique mix of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese style architecture was preserved. Start your sightseeing tour at the River Thu Bon and let the city work its magic! Water lilies float next to wooden fishing boats on the water, bridges stretch over the river and tourists sit in cosy pubs. Walking further along the river will lead you to the Japanese bridge, which is the city’s main landmark. Its construction took place during the 1590s, and was begun in the year of the monkey and finished in the year of the dog. For this reason, a pair of monkeys sit and one end of the bridge and a pair of dogs at the other, and they are said to have been guarding the river for centuries. At the time of its construction, the bridge connected the Japanese and Chinese quarters of the town to the right and left of the river banks.
After that, you should find yourself at Tran Phu Street, where you can visit all the wonderful stately buildings. Take a glance at every side street, shop and backyard, before strolling back over the the Nguyen Thai Hoc Street.
During your walk you’ll pass by various historic houses, museums and assembly halls and have the opportunity to take part in creative workshops. I would highly recommend a visit to the Chinese Fukian Assembly Hall, that was built in the 17th century. The building looks like something out of a storybook, with pink facades, arching roofs, white ornaments and colourful laterns, and is still an important religious centre for the people of Hoi An. In the inner courtyard you’ll find a small pond, and the smell of incense permeates the air.
Now take a look at the sky. What you will see is quite astonishing: cables and wires are criss-crossed in all directions. It looks as though nothing has ever been repaired when damaged, and new cables have just been put in – it’s a cable salad!
Unlike the major cities of Ho Chi Mnh or Hanoi, where you have to watch out for passing scooters and motorcyles, life in this former fishing village is lived at a more leisurely pace. I recommend renting a bike or scooter, so that you can get around the city quickly and travel from the harbour to the market to the beach in a matter of minutes! Then you can also ease yourself into the Vietnamese traffic! But bear in mind, the small streets where most of Hoi An’s main attractions are located, are pedestrian zones.
The perfect suit
As we all know, clothes make the person. In Hoi An, all your clothing wishes and dreams can come true! Nowhere in Vietnam has more tailors than here. Get fitted for a suit or some awesome individual clothes, it’s a must do when visiting Hoi An!
In the shops you’ll be presented with an enormous selection of fabrics, tulle, buttons and zip fasteners. Either bring a snippet from a Cavalli or Armani and Co. catalogue, or bring a printed picture of your dream piece with you! Then the tailors can take their measurements and get to work! The first fitting can usually be done on the same day, and a second the following day until your item is finished and you are completely satisfied with the result. Your dream piece should be finished within 2 days! I can particularly recommendKimmy Custom Tailor! You can often take a sneaky peek behind the scenes and watch your clothing being made too, just ask your tailor!
However, not only clothing garments are tailor-made. You can also get high quality leather shoes, bags and local crafts. Generally though, you should invest in high quality fabrics and materials, because even here good quality does come with a hefty price tag!
If your suitcase if already full or you don’t fancy carrying your new suit across the country on a backpacking trip, then that’s not a problem either! The clothes can be shipped to Europe by many tailoring countries. And once you’re back sitting at home with the post-holiday blues, dreaming about new clothes, you can even have some more pieces made at Kimmy Custom Tailor. Once the measurements have been taken, the tailor saves them. So next time you have a big occasion coming up, you can order in a unique suit or dress!
Hoi An’s Beaches
After you’ve discovered the city’s sights in the morning, you can enjoy some sun on the nearby beaches in the afternoon. The Cua Dai Beach is about 4km away from the city and you’re guaranteed to be impressed by its white sand and clear waters. A bit further north you’ll find An Bang Beach. In my opinion, this beach is prettier, and it’s also often empty! You can grab a snack in one of the small restaurants in the area.
With a bike, you can reach the Cua Dai beach in half an hour. The road out will take you past a diverse landscape, past water-swamped rice fields and water buffaloes.
Cuisine and Restaurants
Vietnamese cooking is full of surprises. But the food served in Hoi An is the best of all! In Vietnam, there are specialties that are only served in specific cities or regions. There is the traditional Cao Lau, a dish consisting of brown rice noodles and thin slices of pork, Asian herbs and a dark aromatic sauce. But be careful with the hot chili that’s served with it! Hoi An is also known for the dish: Banh Boa, sometimes referred to as White Roses, because it is made up of small round platters filled with shrimps and meat.
Food Food Food
In the city, you’ll find loads of great restaurants to suit every budget. But even if you want to save money, do invest some in at least one evening at an exclusive restaurant.
The Morning Glory Restaurant is among the best in the city. On the bottom floor, you can watch the chefs prepare your food in the open kitchen. Even though it’s once of the more pricy restaurants, it still shouldn’t leave too much of a dent in a European traveller’s budget. A reservation is recommended!
In Red Bean, you can sample some tasty seafood, and a fusion of Vietnamese and western cuisine. The restaurant has previously been voted number one in Hoi An.
Cafe 43. This restaurant is great at any time of day, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner! The food here is delicious and cheap and you can enjoy it on a comfortable terrace. A lot of backpackers hang out here! And keep your eyes peeled: on the glass table tops you’ll spot many passport photos, left by travellers who love this restaurant! Can you spot me? ;)
Of course, it’s lovely to be cooked for whilst you’re on holiday. But a very special culinary experience is a cooking course, during which you will be introduced to the high art of Vietnamese cuisine. Often these cooking courses start in the market in the old town, where you can pick up everything you need for a recipe, and you’ll first get introduced to all these exotic ingredients! Or perhaps you already know which ginger is the sharpest…?
I can highly recommend Green Bamboo Cooking School & Cafe. The course costs 45 US$ per person, and includes all the ingredients and drinks. There, you can learn how to prepare Vietnamese dishes such as soups, grilled fish in banana leaves and papaya salad. Participants are allowed to choose their favourite Vietnamese dish from a long list of options.
Naturally, a market is both a culinary and cultural experience and ever case – even if you don’t do a cooking course – worth a visit. The market is primarily run by locals, for locals and offers vegetables fresh fish, meat, and everything else required in a typical Vietnamese household.
Hoi An at Night
Hoi An is particularly beautiful at night, when thousands of lights and lanterns create their own special charm. The lights reflect on the river and you can end the day in on of the many restaurants or bars on the bank. Every evening, a lively night market takes place on the small island of the old town. On the streets of Hoi An, you can purchase souvenirs, clothes and coloured lanterns, as well as sampling tasty treats from food stands. Under the light of the moon, all the electrical light is switched off and the colourful lanterns provide the sole, gentle light. The river is particularly beautiful to look at, with coloured lanterns floating on it.
Meanwhile, backpackers and solo travellers lose themselves in the city. No wonder that so many bars and clubs try to tempt in the tourists by boasting the cheapest drinks prices on the door!
All sounds to good to be true? Even though Hoi An has become one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist destinations (alongside Halong Bay), it’s still a very enjoyable and relaxing place to visit. Tourism is a great source of income for the local people, so therefore they always do their best to ensure that your stay is as pleasant as possible, and to share their culture with you.