Intro to Hoi An
One of the best ways to get around Vietnam is their well-developed train system. However, Don’t Skip: Hoi An just because is not on the tracks. Hop off at Da Nang and share a taxi to Hoi An. This ancient city is recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage town and for good reason. The oldest buildings are preserved from when it was a trading port in the 16th and 17th Centuries. The meaning of the name Hoi An, peaceful meeting place, should be enough to convince anyone to visit. That being said, we had our moments of disillusionment as well. Make no mistake. Hoi An is definitely on the tourist trail. Many have transplanted themselves and their families, lured by the dream of big, easy money to be made off tourists. Like many places in Vietnam (and elsewhere) you have to know how to play the game or avoid the touts who will relentlessly try and rope you into something to make their commission. They are taxi drivers, hotel desk attendants, restaurant servers, or possibly just someone you meet on the street. Not to worry though, stand your ground and Hoi An’s small alleys and many friendly residents will ultimately win you over. Our highlights are below.
Hoi An has some of the best-preserved residences, pagodas, temples, communal and assembly houses anywhere in Vietnam. Even the wharf is pretty cool. Our favorite building was the Old House of Duc An. Eight generations have lived in the house; four of them are there currently. The last patriarch passed away at the age of 102! Runner up: Phu Kien Assembly Hall (1690) is dedicated to a goddess of the sea and serves the Fujian Chinese community, the largest ethnic minority in Hoi An. In order to enter these sites, you need to buy a ticket. The ticket covers 5 attractions, one from each section of a list of 21 spots divided into: Museums, Assembly Halls, Old Houses, Intangibles and Others. The Japanese Bridge, a symbol of Hoi An, is included in this list under “Other.” Check this site for current details.
The city is known for a variety of special dishes found nowhere else in Vietnam. There are many good restaurants, but most if not all of these items can be found in their “street food” version at a much lower price and just as yummy flavor. Check out Phuoc’n Delicious’ post on Hoi An street food. They’ve got some great photos! Cao Lầu is made from flat, chewy cao lầu noodles (rice-based, but made from water from certain local wells), slices of pork, pork cracklings, bean sprouts, some kind of crouton, lettuce and herbs like cilantro. White Rose is shrimp and pork steamed in a rice-paper wrapping folded to look something like a flower. Banh Xeo is a delicious, crispy country pancake with lots of herbs and veggies, Mì Quảng is rice noodles again with slices of pork, vegetables like morning glory, young banana flower, and herbs, but this time adding in shrimp, quail eggs and crushed peanuts. Oddly, doughnuts are everywhere in Hoi An, and they’re pretty darn tasty. My favorite dish was Grilled Fish in Banana Leaf, moist BBQ fish and a delicious spice mixture wrapped in leaves and steamed. Many people opt to do cooking classes while in Hoi An, and there are many to choose from.
Getting around Hoi An and the surrounding area by bike is a good option, offering a bit of freedom and the chance to burn some calories you packed on testing out some of the dishes above. The An Hoi peninsula, across from the Old Town a great spot for a ride, as is Cam Nam island, connected by a bridge, but there are many more once you get out of town. We got out and cycled several times during our visit. One jaunt was into the countryside in the direction of the nearby pottery village. Another day we made it to Cua Dai beach, the southernmost stretch of which has come to be known as China Beach, where American soldiers once had their R&R. There are many cycling tours to choose from, and having a guide when visiting some of the artisans villages is very helpful. At only $1-$1.50 or so for the day, a bike is the best deal in Hoi An!
The market is a wonderful place to immerse yourself in a bit of daily life. Vendors sell just about any vegetable and fruit you can think of from stalls, carts and baskets along the road. Further along is a section for fish and meat. Souvenirs, of course, are abundant. The colors, smells, sights and sounds will have your senses on hyperdrive. There are some handy spots to sit or stand and have a bowl of noodles or a coffee here as well. Prepare to be exhausted if from nothing else than simply saying, “No.”
Hoi An is known for its lanterns. On the 14th of each lunar month Old Town closes to all traffic, shuts off all the lights, and has a party. Flickering candlelight through multi-colored lanterns sets a lively mood, and people are ready to celebrate. Incense fills the air, musicians play traditional music, there are street performances, and it’s a perfect opportunity to sample some street food.
BONUS: Though it wasn’t one of our highlights, we have to mention that Hoi An is also the city of tailors. People travel from all over the region to Hoi An for specifically this reason. All visitors will be approached right away by someone promising to whip up a suit or dress, perfectly fit to your body, in a matter of days (or less). Choose wisely, though. There are as many unskilled tailors and straight-up scams as legitimately talented craftsmen. Check out the website dedicated to reviewing Hoi An’s tailors. For more details on the darker side of this business in Hoi An, Art of Backpacking has posted an interesting article on the subject.