We’ve been speeding through northern Vietnam, catching catnaps on trains, and riding more night buses than I care to remember. (But who doesn’t love a free night’s accommodation, even if it is on wheels and smells of fish sauce?)
In southern Vietnam, we soaked up sunshine in Mui Ne and hit the epic Party Boat in Nha Trang. As we headed into Vietnam’s northern half, we braced ourselves for even more fascinating culture and picturesque rice paddies. Our next stop was Hoi An, a historic coastal down near the estuary of the Thu Bon River. After five crazy-busy days in this delightful town, I’ve whittled our jam-packed schedule down to my top five reasons to visit Hoi An fun.
1. Explore the Old Town – Grab your flip-flops and camera for a day of strolling around the UNESCO World Heritage charm of Hoi An’s Old Town. The historic quarter is a well-preserved example of 15th century Hoi An when it was Southeast Asia’s most popular trading port and spice trading center. The architecture reflects both the indigenous and foreign influences that combined to produce Vietnam’s unique heritage. Here in Hoi An, the galleries, antique stores, restaurants, and bars were once homes and shops owned by Old Vietnamese, Japanese, and Chinese merchants. It makes for a beautiful walk around the city.
Tip: Buy a ticket at the Hoi An Office of Tourist Services that will give you entry to over twenty historic temples, museums and assembly halls. Cost – 120,000 dong ($6US).
2. Treat your inner foodie – As with most places in South-East Asia, the street food in Hoi An, Vietnam is delicious and dirt cheap. In fact, street fare is so prolific that there is almost no reason to sit down at a restaurant and dip into your daily budget. Instead, explore the delightful street stalls just outside your door.
Hoi An has several local specialties, including white rose dumplings, wontons, and cao lau, a delicious fat noodle often served with pork, croutons, and lots of greens (or for vegetarians – just the greens). Authentic cao lau noodles are soaked in water collected from Hoi An’s ancient Cham wells. Both of these dishes will cost well under $2. Be sure to round our your meal with a refreshing ice coffee and chocolate dumpling.
Tip: One of the most famous places to find great street food is along the small lane of Le Loi Street. Treat yourself to bun noodles and com ga, or chicken rice.
3. Stretch your budget by clothes shopping – Liz and I eagerly bought an enormous spare suitcase and filled it to the brim with newly tailored clothes. Admittedly, we went a bit overboard getting custom skirts, tops, pants, and suits made at the extremely affordable tailors lining Hoi An’s main boulevard, but….how could we not?
Hoi An is considered the garment center of Vietnam. Whether you’re looking for an outfit clipped out of a fashion magazine, a reproduction of a famous designer, or simply a cotton skirt for traveling, Hoi An is the place to get it done. With the sheer number of tailors available Hoi An is definitely a buyers’ market, but make sure to take a break from clothes shopping in order to browse the local art galleries as well.
Tip: Tailors speak both French and English. Keep your schedule open as you will probably have to return to the tailor more than once for fittings.
4. Bicycle around Cat Kim Island – Cam Kim Island is a beautiful slice of rural life that is almost completely free from tourists, and it’s a great place for an early morning or late afternoon cycle.
Grab a bicycle or motorcycle, climb abroad and prepare yourself for stunning rural landscapes, rice paddies, villages and quiet roads. You can easily catch a ferry to Cam Kim Island from just outside Hoi An’s central market. Once you get off the pier on Cam Kim, follow the pier road and turn right to find the wood-carving and artisans shops. Take a look at the colorful woven sedge mats and the locally-made “basket” fishing boats.
Spend the rest of the morning peddling through rice and corn fields around the island. There are plenty of picturesque pathways to explore, along with some amazing bamboo bridges – or monkey bridges. Don’t worry, the island is small enough so that you won’t get lost.
TIp: Schedule your trip across the water for either sunrise or sunset to catch some spectacular light.
5. Further your skills with a cooking class –
What could be better than returning home with some sensational cooking skills under your belt? Participants of one of Hoi An’s popular cooking classes will learn how to make a handful of Vietnamese dishes from scratch, and classes usually include a trip to the local market for ingredient shopping and, of course, the opportunity to eat the dishes at the end of the lesson.
We went to Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant and Cooking School and learned about Vietnamese food and culture as well has how to cook a couple of excellent Vietnamese dish. I’m a sucker for pho and, though I’m not an expert, I picked up some great tips for barbecuing and pickling vegetables. Dinner party guests be forewarned – you are up against a pro now!
Another great opportunity that we heard about is the Green Bamboo Cooking School and Cafe. Each lesson begins with a trip to the local market to purchase ingredients, and Ms. Van lets participants select their own entree from a long list of yummy delights. Choose from Banana blossoms salad with shrimp or, pork, Papaya salad, or Sea food salad with basil and chili. We met many tourists who tried this class, and all raved about Ms. Van’s sweetness and cooking skills.
What are your favorite spots in Hoi An?