Hoi An - totally captivating. This beautifully preserved, ancient town is rich in culture, character and charm
I was totally and utterly captivated from the minute I set foot in ancient Hoi An town. My face lit up like the candles floating down the Thu Bon River and the Chinese lanterns strung from the rooftops across the narrow streets and reflecting into the water. We arrived in Hoi An on the magical night of the full moon held on the 14th day of every lunar month. The old town was illuminated with thousands of lanterns, and as we strolled along the riverside hundreds of little paper dishes carrying candles drifted by casting a glow across the water. Local people, dressed in traditional costume, performed beautiful, lilting Vietnamese music from a large wooden junk afloat on the Thu Bon and children demonstrated martial arts. No vehicles or electric lights are allowed in the town on the night of the full moon and this added to the tranquillity and enchantment as we wandered spellbound through the streets amazed that somewhere so unique, charming and fascinating still existed.
By day, Hoi An remains captivating; once a busy town trading in spice and silk, many of the homes, temples and pagodas of the Old Town remain beautifully preserved. Flowering plants full of colour and scent trail from balconies, locals wearing coolie hats and selling wares from baskets mingle with tourists. Shops are crammed into the labyrinth of streets and alleyways selling souvenirs, local crafts, lacquer-work, silks and countless tailors’ shops offer made-to-measure clothing. Restaurants abound serving exceptional local dishes and continental fare.
What to do
Go explore - have a mini adventure discovering this delightful old town. Hire a cyclo for an orientation of the town – be sure to agree your price before you set off. If it’s R&R you want rent a bike or hire a ride on the back of a motorbike and head down to Cua Dai Beach for some down-time on the pristine, white sands of one of the best beaches in Vietnam.
Six of the best
Japanese Covered Bridge - (at the intersection of Tran Phu and Nhuyen Thi Minh Khai Streets) A symbol of the town, this wooden bridge once connected the old Chinese quarter to Hoi An. Built in 1593 by the Japanese community, it houses a shrine to the Tao god, Bac De. Free admission
Phuc Kien Assembly Hall - (46 Tran Phu Street) The grandest and largest of four assembly halls in the town and home to elaborate carvings, shrines, Chinese dragons and huge conical incense burners hanging from the ceiling. Enter through an ornate gateway from Tran Phu Street. (Entry 10,000 VND)
Central market - On the riverbank and best visited early morning when not at its busiest. Lively, to say the least, the market is a riot of colour, chatter and aromas presenting a real slice of local life. Abundant with fresh, vibrantly coloured fruit, herbs, vegetables, fish, meat, live fowl and quaintly bottled scorpions.
House of Tan Ky - (101 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street) is a traditional Hoi An abode and built around a small courtyard, ceilings are decorated with delicate crab shell designs and the pillars with mother-of-pearl inlay. On the walls are markers showing the height of past flood waters – lets just say the electrical sockets are all fitted at over six foot and the furniture is easily moved up to the second floor. (Entry 10,000 VND)
Suits you Sir – Hoi An is bursting at the seams with tailor shops. On my second visit I took some favourite items of clothing to have made up and was pleased with the results. Be warned though, the cloth is dearer than the tailoring and you do get what you pay for, however, you can also pay over the odds – you may have to walk away before getting a realistic price. At some of the smaller shops it's worth having something made just for the banter – these people have a lovely sense of humour.
Red Bridge Cooking School - (www.visithoian.com) A fantastic morning’s entertainment and definitely not to be missed. Meet at Hai Café (98 Ngyen Thai Hoc Street) for a shopping trip to market where an informative and amusing guide tells about local produce and its unusual properties - did you know that ginger is nature’s Viagra? After a leisurely boat trip to Red Bridge your chef demonstrates how each dish should be prepared with the help of an overhead mirror (Vietnamese TV!) and a large measure of humour. In the outdoor pavilion at individual cooking stations you’ll recreate some tasty authentic Vietnamese dishes which you’ll enjoy later for lunch in Red Bridge’s restaurant overlooking the river. (402,000 vnd $23)
Food in Hoi An is delectable with lively, tantalising flavours drawn from fresh, locally grown herbs such as lemongrass, Vietnamese mint, coriander and Thai basil. Choose from subtly spiced pork or chicken stir-fries with rice or noodles, the freshest of fish, delicate soups and vegetable rolls - all delicious. Don’t worry that your tailor-made clothes won’t fit you when you get home – Vietnamese cuisine is incredibly light and healthy.
Brother’s Café (27-29 Phan Boi Chau Street; 84-510 3914 150; www.brothercafehoan.com) - less of a café and more of a restaurant, this former riverside ice factory set in lush, lantern-lit gardens serves generous servings of excellent Vietnamese cuisine but slightly pricier. (Main course 111,000-277,000 VND)
Citronella Café (5 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Hoi An, Vietnam; 84-510 2414 91) - located through the Japanese Bridge on the left this was a little gem of a restaurant with the tiniest kitchen, overlooking the river. We ate here more than once as it served delicious local dishes reasonably priced and the staff were lovely. (Main course 25,000-65,000 VND)
The Cargo Club (107-109 Nguyen Thai Hoc Tel; 84-510 3910 489) - traditional Hoi An specialities and other Vietnamese favourites served in this beautiful old shop-house. The best tables are on the balcony overlooking the river. (Main course 25,000-65,000 VND)
Nam Long (103 Cua Dai Road; 84-510 3923 723; www.namlong-hoi) - with oriental dark wood décor and beautiful gardens surrounding the outdoor terraces with De Vong river views, Nam Long serves delicious food and has a good wine list. Menus emphasize regional Vietnamese cuisine. (Main course 111,000-185,000 VND)
Good Morning Vietnam (102 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street; 84-510 91 02 27; www.goodmorningviet.com/hoian.htm) - set in the heart of the old town, if you’ve had your fill of local food pop in for great pizza or pasta.
Tam Tam Café (110 Nguyen Tahi Hoc; 84-510 3862 212; www.tamtamcafe-hoian.com) - the bar above the café was our favourite and where we generally ended up at the end of the evening. A lively bar with a pool table, good music from the DJ and nibbles from the restaurant downstairs; a great place to meet people.
Before and Now (51 Le Loi Street; 84-510 910 599) - one of the most popular bars in Hoi An with pool table, video screens and good music.
Where to stay
Palm Garden Beach Resport and Spa is perfect if you want a mix of beach and town as this five star hotel is right on the Cua Dai Beach with spacious bungalows overlooking the sea; great pool, gardens and restaurants and only a five minute drive from town. Service and food are very good.
Hoi An Victoria Hotel - this hotel, located between the sea and the river, has beachside bungalows and is decorated with typical décor of Indochina with a contemporary feel. The hotel has a great bar exhibiting works by local artists.