Hoi An is unquestionably one of the true bucket-list sights of Vietnam. Far from the heady fray of cities like Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, the town oozes French colonial charm and the ancient traditions of both Chinese and Japanese settlers. It’s also got a fine beachfront of shimmering white sand, famous tailors and it’s very own cuisine. No wonder we head this way on our Vietnam Explorer itinerary!
Get a suit tailor-made
Alright, so while we know that most backpackers hitting Nam’ will be donning the usual Chang vests or Saigon Beer onesies, Hoi An offers the opportunity for something just a little more refined: a tailored suit. Yes sir, thanks to the town’s long history as a thriving trading port where silk and fabric tailors from Japan, China and the Far East came to barter for wares, this pretty little spot midway up the Vietnamese coast is prime for nailing that Sunday best. Don’t fall for the taxi scams (when motor-rickshaw drivers will deposit you at a friend’s tailors for a cut of the price) and be sure to head away from the heart of the old town to keep the costs down. Then it’s just a matter of picking a fabric and looking suave!
Hit An Bang Beach
Stretching southwards from the busier sands of Da Nang’s China Beach, Hoi An’s broadside on the South China Sea is a truly beautiful thing to behold. It comes backed by swaying coconut palms where hammocks and beer bars hide between the canopies, peppered with bamboo deck-chairs and set to the sounds of the ocean rollers that lap against the shoreline in rhythmic sloshes. Body boarding is popular, and so is just sipping a cracked coconut courtesy of the local salespeople (be sure to haggle them down!). The roads leading from the center to the beach are also pleasant, and a great excuse to break away from the city on two wheels!
Taste cao lầu
A bowl that fuses the flavours of China and Japan and Vietnam in one medley of mouth-watering broth, cao lầu is pretty much only available in Hoi An. Legend has it that the famous dish is made with the uber-fresh waters of a local well, while a single Vietnamese family hold monopoly over the unique noodles used in the cooking process – of course, the recipe is totally secret. There’s no denying that the taste is top-notch; mixing green mint and salty stock, sliced, slow-cooked pork and beansprouts. The best cao lầu spot in the city is a hotly debated topic too, while – as usual – we think the finest are on the street stalls, found clustering around the Japanese Bridge decorated in dim lanterns after dark.
Haggle your way through the night market
Lit by the dim red and yellow lights of the Chinese lanterns that swing in the riverside harbour of central Hoi An, the bustling night market of the city rises in a hubbub of haggling and noise after the day is done. It’s a carnivalesque affair, where row upon row and stack upon stack of trinkets and flags, lanterns and Buddha carvings (be careful about buying these – some say there are restrictions on people taking them home!) burst from the makeshift stalls. Many of the shopkeepers have become known for their raucous banter too. I’m not saying any names, but keep an eye out for the loquacious local at emporium number 33!
Rent a bike
For a welcome break from the purring petrol scooters that are the modus operandi of most all backpackers in Nam’, Hoi An simply can’t be beaten. Rarely has a town been quite as bike-friendly as this. Rental shops for the two-wheeled whizzers are everywhere, while prices for a whole day’s riding clock up to a pretty wallet-friendly $1 on average! To the north, the city gives way to flat-lying farmlands and rice paddies – the perfect place to explore. Expect to see galumphing water buffalos, pass rattling wagons piled high with hay, spot local fishermen in coracles and even the odd temple pagoda between the palm trees.
See the Ba Le Well
Remember that fabled well that’s supposed to feed every bubbling bowl of cao lầu noodle broth ever served in Hoi An? Yep? Well this is it! Granted it might not seem like the most jaw-dropping of must-sees, but you’d be surprised quite how many travelers insist on making a beeline to this out-of-the-way attraction. Today, the spot is curated by one Ba Lo Le; a zealous well-keeper who’s spent a lot of time (and money) restoring the watering hole. The locals are also keen to tell tales of the fairies that lurk in the shadowy depths, and there’s always someone ready to champion the flavour of its mineral-rich water.
Do the history – of course!
Last but certainly not least is Hoi An’s famous cultural and historical side – this is a UNESCO World Heritage Site after all! Be sure to delve into the tight-knit labyrinth of streets that forms the old town heart here, seeking out the low-rise bungalows left over from the centuries when Japanese and Chinese traders roamed the jetties. There is also a glorious array of French-style frontispieces lining the dockside (now inhabited by quirky vegetarian cafes and the like), while that arched Japanese Bridge and its elaborate gables and dragon motifs is a must!W
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