You’ll seldom hear a bad word said about Hoi An, which is often the highlight of Vietnam holidays be they of backpackers, families or older tourists.
This charming, UNESCO world heritage city has buildings dating back to the 15th century and provides a glimpse to a past when traders from China and around South-East Asia ventured up the Thu Bon River to the small port.
Narrow streets in the old town lead to a riverfront with old yellow-washed buildings on either side connected by a footbridge.
During summer, the relative cool of the evening brings everyone out and the place is abuzz with tourists and hawkers.
SOME OF HOI AN’S ANCIENT BUILDINGS. PICTURE: DAVID BONNICI
The sight of candles floating down the river provides a calming influence.
Candlelight is a big part of the monthly full-moon celebrations – on the 14th day of the lunar months, the town’s lights are dimmed and the river is aglow.
During the rest of the month, old ladies sell candles with promises of good luck and love being part of their sales pitches. Once you oblige, they place them on the water using long sticks.
Colourful paper and bamboo lanterns festooned around town and hanging in front of shops add to the spectacle.
DARK CLOUDS FAIL TO DULL THE VIBRANCY OF THE HOI AN RIVERFRONT. PICTURE: TONY BONNICI
A night market mostly sells souvenirs. Haggling is encouraged. I got into a particularly terse price war with a fierce young woman all of 11 years old who kept asking “oh my god man, what the hell are you on about?” whenever I gave her a price.
As is the Hoi An way it was all good natured but with a good deal of cheek.
The laid-back attitude of Hoi An and its people lulls you into a relaxed groove of sun-soaked, sleepy days and indulgent evenings that will have you wishing you had booked a longer stay.
It’s not a party town in the seedy sense and its nightlife is mostly centred around food.
Food is key
Good restaurants are plentiful and the more popular ones live up to the hype. Morning Glory restaurant in the old town, for instance.
The double-storey restaurant is always flat out yet the quality of the food doesn’t seem to suffer.
It’s run by local foodie royalty Trinh Diem Vy, known as Ms Vy, who is famous around the country for her international take on Vietnamese cuisine.
She also runs the Mermaid and Cargo Club restaurants and The Market Restaurant & Cooking School.
HOI AN MARKET. PICTURE: TONY BONNICI
At Morning Glory, I had squid stuffed with minced pork and easily won dinner that night. Cooked in a quintessential chilli and lemongrass marinate, this is up there with the tastiest dishes I have ever had – think about it: Squid – stuffed with pork!
Another nice spot was The Chef, on a rooftop above an incredibly charming old bookshop. Overlooking the ancient terracotta roofline of the old city, it is particularly fetching at sunset. Guests are welcome just for a drink. It has a great wine list and plenty of by-the-glass options – a rarity in Vietnam.
Food is also big business in Hoi An by way of cooking classes, which you can do for a few hours or even over a few days.
The Hoi An Beach resort where we stayed offered a cooking class for its guests. For US$35, we travelled to the wonderful Hoi An market with the hotel’s head chef, who showed us around as he bought produce.
FISH IN TUMERIC WRAPPED IN BANANA LEAF, MADE DURING THE COOKING COURSE. PICTURE: DAVID BONNICI
After that, we took a river boat back to the resort before learning how to prepare dishes including fresh prawn spring rolls, yellow chicken curry and the delightful-looking turmeric fish wrapped in banana leaf.
Then we ate it all.
Hoi An’s other big industry is clothing. Tailor shopfronts are everywhere. If you walk through the quiet laneways past the small homes, you’ll see people at work on sewing machines making everything from three-piece suits and ball gowns to shoes and leather jackets.
Choosing a tailor is tricky – there’s so many. Word of mouth is good, and you can generally get good tips from fellow hotel guests backed up by Tripadvisor.
Make sure you get an address – there are often different businesses with almost identical names.
ONE OF THE MANY TAILOR STORES IN HOI AN. PICTURE ISTOCK
Get fitted out as soon as you can during your stay. The tailors can generally make clothes within 24 hours but it’s good to leave time for alterations.
We went to Tuong Clothes Shop on a recommendation – one I’d happily pass on. I got a leather jacket made there just by showing them a few pictures on my phone and I can’t fault the quality.
A place to stay
Accommodation options abound in Hoi An – from backpacker hostels and three-star hotels costing about $30 a night to five-star luxury resorts nudging four figures.
You can stay in town or on the coast a couple of kilometres away.
The Hoi An Beach Resort was great value for under $200 a night. Rooms are in villas that have two upstairs and two downstairs rooms – very nice for the price.
I suggest a river view room as the beach views overlook the road between the resort and shore.
THE POOL AT HOI AN BEACH RESORT. PICTURE: TONY BONNICI
This friendly resort has a couple of pools, a nice open-air restaurant and bar overlooking the river. The only downside is it’s a bit out of town, though the hotel has shuttle buses or you can catch a cab for around $5.
Hoi An Beach resort has it’s own beach across the road with plenty of deck chairs and a bar.
The beach itself was washed away during a storm surge last year so they had to place sand bags between the grass area and the water. Fortunately, you don’t really notice them as they blend with the sand that’s slowly returning to reclaim the shore.
To avoid such weather, it’s best to visit in summer, between late May and June, when it’s hot, dry and calm.
Hoi An is a 30-minute drive from Da Nang International Airport. A taxi will cost about $20. To encourage people to travel beyond Saigon, Vietnam Airlines offers a free return internal flight as part of your air fare from Melbourne.