Hoi An is like nowhere else I’ve ever visited. It’s perfect in its imperfections – an almost Disneyfied reimagining of history. The wide, cobbled streets are lined by buttercup-hued buildings and trees heavy with fruit and perfumed flowers. Each whitewashed balcony is filled with people sitting back in the sunshine, sipping on chilled glasses of ca phe sua da and watching the world go by. We arrived at 6am after a long and sleepless night bus journey, to a town beginning to stir. The mercury was rapidly rising as we slipped into the heat of the day.
We stayed at a small and simple hostel in the Old Town – the name of which I’ve since, unfortunately, forgotten. As with the vast majority of hostels during our travels, this was a basic affair – no hot water and limited internet access. It did, however, have a beautiful swimming pool lying just a few steps from our front door – similar to many affordable hostels and hotels throughout the city. As one of the country’s most developed tourism destinations – unlike the towns which cater first and foremost to backpackers – Hoi An also offers a whole spectrum of beautiful hotels to suit every budget.
Our first day was spent exploring this beautiful city – a UNESCO World Heritage site with incredibly well-preserved cultural sites on almost every street corner. The Ancient Town lying towards the centre of the city has long been regarded as a jewel in the crown of Vietnam’s heritage, and it’s clear to see why. There are countless sights to see, and many options to do so. You can purchase a pass for around 120,000 dong (roughly $6 USD) which will allow you to visit some of the top Ancient Town attractions. Beware, your choice of attractions is limited to five visits in total, made up of: one of the two landmarks (the Japanese covered bridge’s pagoda or Quan Cong temple), any of the four included museums, any of the three old houses, congregation houses, and few other sights such as the traditional theatre. Each visit counts as one of the five included in your pass, which can be purchased from most tourist areas, or the numerous street traders.
However, even without this you’re free to explore the many sights not covered by the pass – including the Japanese covered bridge itself (though not the pagoda) and countless little hidden monuments and shrines.
One of my favourite spots in the town was the central market, comprised of a cavernous indoor marketplace with traders spilling out into a maze of stalls lining the surrounding streets. Vietnamese markets are a sensory overload: the air is heavy with the scents of dried shrimp and sour durian, ringing with the cries of livestock and the voices of stallholders vying for trade. Whilst there are, of course, tourists around, the majority of stalls are unchanged from generations past – grocers, butchers, and fishmongers catering to their communities. I’ve never seen such a variety of produce – fruit of every shape, size and colour, a boggling variety of sea creatures -fresh, dried and fermented, herbs, spices, alcohol, trinkets… The list could go on forever.
The tailors of Hoi An are renowned. There are hundreds of them, popping up on every street and tucked away inside the cool shade of every building. I took along a photo of a dress I wanted, the tailor took my measurements and less than a day later I was carrying this picture-perfect replica home (with a few other pieces besides). A friend had a fur-trimmed winter coat created (a word to the wise: consider how long you’ll have to lug these creations around the country – or pay to have them sent home), whilst I know of many others who have left the city with entire tailored three-piece suits complete with vibrant silk lining. If you can dream it up, the talented tailors of Hoi An can make it.
The city streets are no less entrancing at night. The sunset-hued buildings light up with thousands of paper lanterns, reflecting in the still waters of the river. Moto drivers nip up and down the streets whilst couples sit at candlelit tables enjoying steaming plates of Cao Lau – the local speciality comprising of fresh chewy noodles topped with slices of pork, hot chilli jam, pork broth and crunchy fried noodles. Whilst we didn’t have time, many people opt to make the most of this culinary wonderland with a cooking class, which will teach you the many regional specialities – and much else besides.
Heading outside the city, there is no less to see and do. Located in the central coast region of Vietnam, Hoi An offers a decent beach – sand less eroded than Mui Ne, less powdery-white than Nha Trang, but also less affected by the ‘booze cruise’ mentality. The My Son complex is located just to the southwest of the city, an easy day trip. The crumbling red brick temples and shrines are set amongst high grasses and surrounded by beautiful rolling green hills. We spent a hot, hot afternoon exploring the temples – beautiful but entirely exposed to the brutal heat of high summer.
Be warned – the tour companies have a monopoly on the My Son UNESCO World Heritage site, limiting any potential benefits to the local community from your visit.
On our last afternoon in the city, the heat intensified and the sky grew heavy and dark. Ominous clouds swirled in the sky like a gathering bruise. We sought refuge in a cafe, sipping on fresh papaya smoothies as the storm clouds broke and river ran through the streets. The are was heavy with the perfume of flowers and the temperature mellowed into the evening.
Accommodation options are massively varied – you can go for a boutique hotel in the heart of the old town, or a luxurious villa on the shores of An Bang beach. There are airbnb options in abundance if you like to go it alone, or hotels catering to every taste and budget. In the old town, try Maison Mai-Son if you’re on a budget, a beautiful traditional home on airbnb for £21 per night. Alternatively, the Anantara Hoi An resort offers a peaceful refuge in luxurious surroundings, from £99 per night. Heading towards An Bang and the coast, if money was no object I would go for the Nam Hai resort in a heartbeat. Made up of beautiful villas surrounding a huge pool and a long stretch of white sand, this is the epitome of luxury, from £922 per night. For a slightly cheaper option, check out some of the hostels or airbnb offerings, including this beach house for £93 per night.
Hoi An is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. From the crumbling walls in every shade of yellow, to the cobbled streets polished from centuries of footsteps and the colourful paper lanterns lining every avenue, this is a city at once ancient and vibrant; wearing it’s history with pride without the pollution or traffic which nips at the heels of Hanoi and Saigon.