Hoi An is a sparkling and scenic gem right in the heart of Vietnam. With a name that translates to English as "peaceful meeting place," Hoi An is just that: cozy and quaint, and famous for its Old Town where motorists are prohibited, and pedestrians and bike riders are free to parade among the beautiful bridges and walkways that line the river. As a Western tourist, the vibe of the inner city sparked similarities in my mind to small Spanish (or generally European) villages, with yellow-colored, closely packed buildings with terra cotta sloped roofs, with vines and lanterns draped all throughout. The Old Town is well-groomed, well designed, and beautifully curated, which gives the impression of a tourist trap but is for the most part, just that authentic. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, after all, for being such an "exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century. Its buildings and its street plan reflect the influences, both indigenous and foreign, that have combined to produce this unique heritage site."
There is so much to see, do, and eat in the Old Town and in the entire region that surrounds it. It felt like we did so much, but in the grand scheme of all the possibilities, was merely just a taste of what Hoi An has to offer.
HOW WE DID IT
- Our amazing time spent in Hoi An kicked off to a great start when we arrived at the hostel we booked to discover it was actually a hotel! The Hoi Pho Hotel, perfectly located in the Cam Pho District, is just one block from Old Town and on the main street that takes you directly to the beach. The staff was so courteous from the moment we arrived, and we found ourselves lucky enough to have booked (for the same price as a hostel) a balcony-view room with cable TV and some of the best AC we had experienced to date. Free delicious breakfast in the mornings (the banana pancakes were superb), a fridge full of cheap water in the lobby, and plenty of bike rentals, mini marts and stores within feet of the hotel. It was absolutely perfect and I hope I make it back to Vietnam soon just to go back there and support their hotel!
- Every month around the full moon, Hoi An celebrates by lighting up the town with their famous Lantern Festival. We arrived in Hoi An several days before the official night of the full moon but the festival was already in full swing, with lanterns illuminating every corner of the town. The colorful, crafted lights hang over every walkway, float across the water at night, and fill every storefront in every shape, size, and color possible. On the bridge at the center of town that crosses over the Thu Bon River, there were even massive lantern sculptures of letters and dragons that took the magic to a whole other level. Even though the festival attracts a significant crowd, it could hardly take away from the brilliant assortment of lights and the jovial energy that surrounded that.
- With the prohibitions on scooters in the inner city, actual bike riding is much more embraced in Hoi An. We rented bikes, for $3 a day, every day we were there. It was so easy to get around, and such a pleasant way to explore the area. I'll get to all the places we explored later, but I just wanted to emphasize that bikes are definitely the way to go here!
WHAT WE ATE
- First and foremost, The Chef was probably one of my favorite meals throughout our entire trip. The restaurant's rooftop with its extraordinary lantern tree display drew us in, and the food had us coming back another night for round two! To enjoy the Chef to the fullest, get there early before the dinner rush and enjoy the colors of the sky as the sun sets over the rooftops of the city. Start with an order of their fresh summer rolls and a green papaya salad (oh what I would give for one of those right now!). For dinner, indulge in Cao Lau, the region's famous pork noodle dish, or any of their soup dishes. Stay awhile, enjoy every bite, and at the end of dinner, stop by the eclectic gift shop downstairs for a killer postcard or vintage movie poster. So much love for this place!
- The Bahn Mi Queen (or Madame Kahn) has rightfully earned her notoriety so I won't even bother going into detail about what some people might call Vietnam's best bahn mi... But I will say, we did try it, and we can confirm the rumors. The Bahn Mi Queen slays.
- If you're looking for a great coffee (even unsweetened, folks!), then the Laugh Cafe is where it's at. Truth be told, you can find a lot more at this place, including great snacks, smoothies, and cooking classes, but the highlight for us was finding a strong coffee that didn't have an entire truckload of sugar in it. Yay!
- If for any reason you might be craving Thai food (lol I know how weird this sounds), check out Thai Market. Just when I was craving chicken fried rice in a pineapple, this place appeared right in front of our eyes and did not disappoint.
- Other local dishes that you should taste: Com Ga, or chicken rice, is quite popular here, as the "White Rose" plate of shrimp dumplings. The local market also has a great selection of produce, and we snagged some amazing mangos and dragon fruits there on our last day.
- Lastly, I don't normally like to say anything too critical about a place, but I would like to warn future travelers about the seemingly adorable, river front restaurant, Can Cafe, or as we ended up calling it, Can't Cafe. We were enticed by the beautiful patio, with it's outdoor seating surrounded by ivy covered stone walls, but were severely disappointed with our food. I won't say anything more than that, but lesson learned, don't judge a book by its cover; an inviting aesthetic does not make up for overcooked food and lack of flavor.
WHAT WE SAW
- The Marble Mountains: I used to endlessly scroll thru photos of this place months before our trip, wondering what wonders one could find here. Finding myself at the actual site of the photos I had looked at for so long was a little surreal, as was the sheer impressiveness of this historical site. The Marble Mountains is composed of five marble and limestone hills (or "mountains") that stick out of completely flat ground, each one representing an element. The water mountain, Mt. Thuy is the largest, and also the only one open to the public. You can hike to the top, or take an elevator (which I recommend) and then work your way down the mountain. You'll want to reserve a few hours for this, as the entire mountain is covered with caves, temples, caverns, statues, and breathtaking views. In the caves, you can find statues of Buddha hiding in the dark corners, living among sleeping communities of bats. In the fresh air, monks walk from temple to temple lighting incense along the way. There's even a couple of trails that take you to the absolute tippy top where you can get a 360 view of the entire region, with Da Nang just to the north and Hoi An off to the south, and the ocean in every shade of blue right in front of you. It was truly an incredible sight all around. We rode our bikes to the mountains – about a 9 mile bike ride along the flat ocean-front road with the occasional cool salty breeze giving us a breath of life. For those with the leisure of time, this was a non-challenging, very scenic ride.
- Beaches: We rode our bikes to both of the popular nearby beaches, Cam An and Cua Dai. Cam An is closer, lying just at the end of Hai Bai Trung, and is also a fairly long beach with plenty of restaurants and soft, fluffy sand. The public strip of Cua Dai beach is smaller, and unfortunately due to a loss of sand in the area, the beach is lined with sand bags. That aside, this little spot was so tranquil, with plenty of shade, hammocks for rent, and calm waters with sand bars to explore.
- Shopping: Hoi An is evidently a mecca for custom fashion designs at astonishingly low prices. Right around the corner from our hotel was the famous tailoring store, Kimmy's, where Nick designed a custom suit, matching shirts, and a winter coat, that was all expertly tailored and of excellent quality for a jaw dropping price. Upon your arrival at Kimmy's, a seamstress sits you down with an iPad where you can pick through the designs they offer, or you can present your own design (of literally anything) and they'll make your dreams a reality in about 24 hours. It's the same process at any of these stores in Hoi An, and to be honest, it's a pretty incredible to experience. There's dress stores, leather goods stores, high end stores and cheap ones, too, and they all cater to custom tailoring. They'll make you look like a million bucks for about the price of $20.
Just thought I'd offer up some other possibilities Hoi An has to offer that we didn't have the time to take advantage of!
- Tra Que Water Wheel: Tra Que is a small village between Hoi An and Cam An beach, and there you can find the Water Wheel Farm for a great day of ecotourism. Plant herbs with the local farmers, participate in a cooking class, learn to make rice paper and enjoy the natural landscapes unique to Vietnam in this organic one of a kind way.
- Reaching Out Teahouse: Taking time to stop and pause for coffee and conversations is an essential way to enjoy Vietnam. At the Reaching Out Teahouse, you can properly enjoy an afternoon of tea or coffee tasting, but here's the catch: Reaching Out is actually an organization that employs people with disabilities, such as speech and hearing impaired, so that they can have opportunities to fully integrate with their communities and lead fulfilling lives. If you really want to show appreciation for the local community, a visit to this place is a great way to do it.
- Local monuments and temples: Around every corner in the Old Town you can find a temple, bridge, or other sort of historic landmark. The Japanese Covered Bridge is a popular site, but I'd recommend just getting lost in the small streets and see what you can find :)
- The Hai Van Pass: If you are seeing Vietnam via motorbike or scooter, then I highly recommend you consider traveling to Hoi An via this scenic route. Originating in Hue, this road is rich with history and free of automobiles, so motorists can take their time to enjoy the oceanic breeze and incredibly lush landscapes. Some of the most beautiful panoramas we witnessed of Nam we saw from the window of our bus rides, so I would love to go back and take this road with the freedom to stop and explore.
Stay tuned for Chapter 4, the last installment of our time in Vietnam!