There are plenty of reasons why Hoi An is one of the most coveted destinations in Vietnam. People love to visit its tight-knit streets and historic lanes, all of which have garnered it a famous UNESCO World Heritage Site tag. But there are beaches, too, strung out along the blue waters of the South China Sea. And there are buzzing night markets filled with scented food stalls and mysterious trinkets. Check it out…
I can hear the rice shoots swaying in the light, salty breezes outside my window. The winds are rolling in from the South China Sea out by the coast, caressing the green palms that pepper the pot-holed roadways; cooling the water buffalo that seem to stand and gaze and grunt all day in the wetland gardens beside my door. It's the sort of day I've grown used to and fond of in Hoi An. It's the sort of day that really lends itself to doing nothing but cycling and strolling between the gabled houses and the beachside hutongs.
But first: My morning people watching. I've managed to bag myself a charming little homestay that overlooks the main street leading between the beach and the center of historic Hoi An town. There's a rigmarole of life that ticks over like clockwork out front every day. Paddy workers drift, chatting and gesticulating towards their posts in the muddy fields. Trishaws of all shapes and colors and sizes whizz by. Tailors ready themselves in between their stacks of linen and silk in the emporiums opposite. There are loads of tailors to watch as I sip my morning coffee. Hoi An is famous for its tailors.
As all that action carries on, a breakfast of banana pancake – what else? – preps me for the day. I sip a lychee juice and pull on my shoes. I've hatched a plan to hit my saddle and cycle out to the main beach in Hoi An city. I've already whiled away plenty of time there. A soft stretch of daffodil-yellow sand that runs all the way along from China Beach in buzzing Da Nang down the road, it's peppered with traditional coracle-style fishing skiffs and shaded sunbathing spots where the coconut palms lean like crooked babushkas overhead.
It's not a far ride for me. I'm soon clicking my bike down the driveway to join the stream of morning locals. Then I'm wiggling between the rice paddies, dodging the ups and downs in the crooked streets and whirring through plumes of soy-scented smoke as I pass my regular montage of pho sellers and noodle fryers (more on them later, though).
I roll up onto the concrete bridges that arch over the babbling rivers outside of Hoi An proper. I know that there I am only about 15 minutes' ride from the famous UNESCO heart of the town where most travelers will spend their whole trip. In a more off-the-beaten-patch corner of the place, I'm free to at least feel a little more like a local. I pedal on, glad I stayed away from the center.
I smile and wave at my regular folk. There's Le the suit maker, threading needles behind the stacked chairs that line his popular tailor shop. There's Chau the bookseller, hidden amid the toppling hoodoos of the volumes she stocks – from Dostoevsky to Dylan Thomas, and all in English, curiously. There's Danh the onlooker. I'm not really sure what Danh does. He's got an age-torn umbrella for shade, a constant cigarette but a mischievous smile that shimmers like the sands of Cua Dai Beach.
Talking of Cua Dai Beach, it's not long before I get there. The concrete roadways feather out into gritty banks of sand, all of which then slowly turn into soft dunes covered with palm trees. Then there's the beachfront itself. It glows that bisque hue of yellow-white I've come accustomed to across Southeast Asia. Shacks line up, salt-washed and rickety, along its length. Some here are touting bodyboard rentals, others have cocktail deals that will have to wait until later, I think.
The sea, a deep blue and turquoise along the shore, is medium-rough here. It rolls over with its whitecapped waves to reveal pockets of froth that entice the boogieboarders. It also laps against a shallow gap in the shoreline to offer a prime place to sit and wallow and cool off. I find myself doing the latter for hours some mornings, just staring out across the ocean where I know the paradisiacal Chàm Islands hide, and the archipelagos of the Philippines lie, far, far beyond the horizon.
Hours on the beach done and dusted, I make for my bike once again. The evening's setting in now. The rice paddies' 100 shades of emerald and green are illuminated in a kaleidoscope of yellows and reds as I whizz by and the sun dips low. The puddles of water that irrigate between the rows of rice plants reflect like mirrors up to the cloud-marked sky. I see Chau packing up her stacks of tomes. I see Le, just a shadow studiously poring over seams in a silk-cotton dress. Of course, I see Danh too: Sitting, staring, smiling, smoking.
My locals and the rice paddies blur into a mishmash of color and faces as I rumble by, chin jolting this way and that with the pebbles and potholes. I'm heading straight for the heart of the city of Hoi An, where UNESCO have tagged the buildings and enchanting Japanese bridges hide between clusters of glowing yellow lanterns.
It's always an enthralling trip back there. Tonight's no different as the overhanging gable roofs of the hutong-style houses begin to creep closer to the roadway and the verdant rice farms become gradually punctuated by signs heralding luxury hotels: "Hot Tub Here"; "Free WELCOME Drink" – inexplicable caps is a feature of Vietnamese signage, I gather.
The streets turn into a medley of tailor shops. Suits, pinstriped like the threads of Chicagoan gangsters circa 1923, dangle on the clothes pegs. There are pictures of celebrities adorned in Gucci three-pieces above the windows, enticing customers to come and get themselves measured and styled by the "best IN town". There's that caps again.
Then I'm in Hoi An's center. The streets crowd even closer here. The smells of sizzling chili and ginger and spice and peanut sauce all twist and turn in the air. Art galleries awash with curious portraits and carved Buddha statues colored in jade spill out onto the cobbled sidewalks. Bursts of purple bougainvillea droop down from the tops of carved temples. Little lanes shoot in all directions, crammed with people and bikes and purring motorcycles. This is the maze of the city center I have loved the most in all of Vietnam. It's pungent aromas and mystical fusion of ancient art always entrances me, always grabs me.
I make for the quays along the Thu Bon River in the heart of the UNESCO World Heritage area. Primed for visitors, this district is brimming with hippy art cafes and veggie eateries, yoga workshops and trinket sellers trying to get you to buy that first Buddha statue for good luck, healthy family, lottery wins – you know, the usual. I don't think it's always been like that. Not back when the powerful Nguyen lords used it as a trading post between the highlands and the sea. Not when the Chinese sailed their fleets across to sell exotic goods with merchants from Egypt and the Middle East in the 1700s.
It is the place where the famous cao lầu broth of Hoi An is made in abundance, though. It's on the menus everywhere. Roadside sellers with pots of ginger and grilling corn on the cob shout its name to passersby. Dimly lit cookhouses that look plucked straight form the ancient streets of Beijing glow red and pink between the haze of people: "Cao lầu" is emblazoned on their doors. Cao lầu is the thing to eat here. It doesn’t take long to realize that. And it doesn't take long to fall in love with it, either.
I settle in a street-side seller that I've come to know. A toothless smile, but a smile nonetheless, and an understanding nod towards the list of various broths on the menu, and I'm soon twiddling my chop sticks in a scented soup that's topped with wilted greens and crunchy onions. I know the veggie option is a remake for the westerns who come asking for cao lầu without meat. It's still darn tasty though, revealing punches of chewy whey noodles and salty stock. Undertones of basil and mint and capsicum flow through my mouth as I scoop through the mixture. Glugs of beer soothe the heat in between bites.
I go to cross the river. I skip the covered Japanese Bridge that so elegantly arcs atop the murky water with its pantheon of prowling timber dragons and mysterious religious effigies dating to the 1500s. That's a pay-per-walk option, and I prefer the views from the strolling bridge nearby, flaunting broadsides of the aforementioned Japanese bridge and access to the bustling night market of Hoi An.
Then I'm taken by the night market itself. Filling a wide street between lantern-lit cao lầu joints, it's rammed with souvenir touts and religious art sellers. I've heard somewhere it's frowned upon to hawk images and sculptures of the Buddha in Southeast Asia, but that's certainly not holding sway here. I'm offered smiling Buddhas for good luck. I'm offered reclining Buddhas for peace and serenity. I'm offered jangling keychains that bear over-exposed photos of Hoi An's center probably dating from 30 years back.
For all its curiosities, I've learned to love the night market in Hoi An. It’s like the perfect place to end a day of exploration in the city. With an array of multicolored lanterns glowing overhead and the broiling cauldrons of pho broth and cao lầu soup steaming in the cookhouses, it's a suitably enchanting place to be when the sun's gone done and the moon's casting its ethereal light over the Chinese cottages and Japanese bridges of the fascinating old center.
It's a place where you can shop for jangling bracelets and backpacker staples like beer-themed vests, or you can just settle in for people watching on the main drag of the ancient town, sipping cold beers while the currents of bikes and trishaws scoot past by their thousands. It's a place where you can get caught dreaming of that next long day spent wallowing on the beaches of the South China Sea, or munching on tasty Asian broths cooked up by locals.
Hoi An is just one of the awesome places we visit on our Vietnam Explorer itinerary. You'll also get raucous beach towns and buzzing megacities in the mix on that one. And if you'd prefer an even more adventurous bout of Southeast Asia, then why not join one of our cross-continent tours, like Orient Express or Best of Both Worlds?
"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."
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