Walking the streets of the historic town of Hoi An in central Vietnam is like stepping back in time. Vietnam can be a difficult place to visit at times. It is busy, crowded, noisy, confusing and has a tumultuous history. That being said, there is also a lot of beauty in the winding streets, old shop houses and distinguishable Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese features that have been preserved exactly for centuries. The world famous Old Town still looks and feels like it did ages ago--although many buildings have now turned into art galleries, boutique hotels and chic restaurants--and some people even liken it to a "Disneyland" type attraction.
I wrote about the first half of my trip to Vietnam in this post that covered Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi; however, I thought Hoi An should be its own post. Hoi An is a relaxing, charming stop that shouldn't be missed on any trip to Vietnam. We didn't stop in Hue, so I can't make a comparison between the two destinations although I have heard both have their merits.
The whole town of Hoi An is considered a Unesco World Heritage site. It was previously a bustling trading post town in the 16 and 17th centuries although much of the business has now moved to Da Nang which is the only place you can fly into to get to Hoi An. The town--with a population of about 80,000--is perfect for taking some cooking classes, lying on the beach and strolling through the shops and has an almost beach or resort town feel, which is very fitting as the name translates to "peaceful meeting place."
You can rent bikes or motorbikes from any hotel for cheap and ride around the Old Town and to the beaches. We stayed about halfway between the main beaches and the Old Town at the Sunflower Hotel. Accommodation prices are extremely reasonable everywhere in Vietnam, so even the most budget travellers can stay in three or four star hotels. This was a nice, basic hotel that also provided a shuttle into the Old Town although we walked the 10-15 minutes ourselves most of the time.
I would say I am more of a grittier traveller who likes to feel the sand in my toes, the salt in my hair and the bashed and blistered feet from walking for hours on end. I generally don't go on trips to shop or buy clothes, except for the odd souvenir or the time I was freezing cold in Scotland and had to buy a sweater. Maybe one day I will be a traveler who enjoys staying at resorts, shopping for expensive things and flying first class. Or maybe I won't and continue how I am, really trying to see and experience different and sometimes not so pretty places.
In Hoi An, you can feel alright for being a typical tourist and not a gritty "experience traveler." This particular spot in Vietnam is a little quieter to leisurely walk around, sip a coffee and do some souvenir shopping--keyword is quiet--and feel alright for being a resort town tourist. Popular attractions include the Japanese covered bridge pagoda (first photo), various museums, old houses and more clothing shops than you can shake a stick at. I wouldn't say there is a lot to do. The point is to take a breather from the rest of Vietnam for a few days and spend your days walking around, sitting in cafes, lounging by the hotel pool or beach and shopping at night.
Of course the food is one of the main attractions of Hoi An. There are many modern and French-inspired cafes on the riverfront and scattered throughout the Old Town, as well as many street stalls and the central market for a quick snack. When it comes to a sit down meal, options range from fine dining to the usual cheap tourist fare. If you're scoping out a restaurant in town, the name Ms. Vy will most likely be on your radar. Restauranteur Trinh Diem Vy, also known as Ms. Vy, owns an impressive selection of well known restaurants in Hoi An, including Morning Glory, Cargo Club, Market Kitchen and Mermaid. From other posts I've read about Hoi Ann, you could eat at only Ms. Vy's restaurants during your trip and still be satisfied with your food options.
We went for dinner at Morning Glory on our first night and returned the next day for lunch. They serve Vietnamese dishes and street food in a beautiful two-story colonial building right in town and it is always busy. Both times we didn't have any trouble getting a table and didn't have to wait long. Ms. Vy's cuisine also focuses on the specific health properties of certain foods and during our lunch I ordered a drink to "firm up one's insides" (the photo of the bill, seen below, gave me a chuckle), which I believe contained orange juice, ginger, soda water and was a sweet thirst quencher. I can't tell you if it worked or not. The restaurant itself is named after the "morning glory" vegetable that is grown throughout Vietnam. It is apparently good to eat for stomach or bladder issues.
I had to try the Banh Mi sandwich consisting of a beautiful baguette (the "banh mi"), pork, herbs, pickles and pate. The sandwiches came about after French colonialism in Indochina, hence the French bread combined with traditional Vietnamese ingredients. No matter what influence the food has, it is always incredibly fresh with many flavourful herbs and condiments to accompany the dishes. The sides are all mostly simple stir fried vegetables done exceptionally well, such as this sauteed pumpkin.
At nighttime, HoiAnn is even more beautiful with lanterns lighting up the sky and streets, people milling about at bars and having long dinners. From what I saw, everything appeared quite safe. I wouldn't say it is a huge party town, but remember the emphasis on quiet? It's alright to have an evening stroll and a nightcap and then go to bed; at least, it is for me. The street vendors are out at night too and will try and coax you into buying a lantern or paper boat to "let go" on the river. They are a beautiful and peaceful sight to watch.
The next night we ate at another Ms. Vy restaurant, Mermaid which is slightly more modest in decor, smaller and boasts a "family atmosphere." This was the first restaurant she opened back in 1992 and the first to serve explicitly to tourists. It is also closer to the market where the chefs source most of the ingredients. This meal was just as good if better than Morning Glory and a bit cheaper. We started with the spring rolls and a few other appetizers.
For the main course I ordered what I did at Morning Glory and absolutely loved: eggplant and ground pork in a clay pot. Normally eggplant is slightly bitter and tough. This was vegetable candy with sweet pieces of pork cooked in lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and chilies. This recipe as well as many of her restaurant favourites are in her cookbook Taste Vietnam. As well as the restaurants, she runs a successful cooking school. I would love to one day know how she makes these wonderful, simple dishes bursting with traditional Vietnamese flavour.
Instead of taking a cooking class or a food tour, our main activity during our stay was a day trip to the My Son ruins. The My son ruins is a temple complex that was built by the Champa Kingdom to worship the Hindu God Shiva. During the Cham Dynasty, Hoi An was considered the commercial capital while My Son was the spiritual capital. The beautiful ruins, although mostly crumbling, are set in a jungle valley with picturesque mountains in the background about 45km from Hoi An. You pretty much have to go with a tour group because the buildings have no labels or information, but tours leave daily for a good price from most Hoi An hotels.
The site used to encompass more than 70 temples and dates back to the 14th and 17th centuries. Most of the ruins were heavily damaged during the Vietnam War. There are impressive carvings, remnants of temples, sculptures and gives you a bit of insight into spiritual and political life at the time in Southeast Asia. All of the buildings were built without mortar or any agent; they are simply brick on brick.
Preservation efforts are being made, but not with any extreme haste. It is not an extreme temple trekking tour like Angkor Wat. All you need is a few hours to walk around with a guide and you'll be back in Hoi An by afternoon. What is left is a serene and quiet space of a few striking pieces of architecture.
My idol Anthony Bourdain had this to say about Vietnam in the Financial Times a few years ago: "A few years from now, I plan to live here. I will move to a small fishing village in the coastal area of Vietnam near Hoi An. I have no idea what I'm going to do there other than write about the experience. I plan only on being a visual curiosity, the lone Westerner in a Vietnamese community; to rent a house, move in with few, if any expectations and let the experience wash over me. Whatever happens, happens."
I didn't know what to expect when I went to Vietnam. And it was near the beginning our 6-week trip to Asia before I had experienced Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Lonely Planet calls it a "nation going places." It is a vast and varied country that is fun treasure box of cultures, visual landscapes and the important part of every trip--food.
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