I was warned that it might happen , and sure enough, it happened. I fell in love while traveling, hard. And fast. Love-at-first-sight fast.
At first it was a superficial love, an attractive exterior that mesmerized and enchanted. But it quickly went deeper, and I found that everything that lay beneath the surface was just as beautiful as what lay without.
What was the name of my new paramour? Hoi An.
In a country of either gritty and wild cities or sleepy and simple villages, Hoi An stands apart from the rest. Secret laneways, terraces draped in bougainvillea, cobbled streets, and ornate bridges make up the exterior of this charming town. Savvy saleswomen, friendly locals, and sinfully delicious food make up it’s personality. It’s not a sprawling metropolis like Saigon or Hanoi, nor is it the tiny village of Son Trach, with the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “main town.” It’s Asia with a French flair, where food and fashion are religion.
So what should you do in this beautiful town? The options are limitless, but after I spent a week here, I can point you in the right direction.
- Dine Like a Royal
Food is serious business in Hoi An, and Central Vietnam has several famous dishes that don’t always feature prominently in the West. But holy hell, are they delicious. Some of my favorite culinary discoveries in Hoi An?
Cao Lao, a beef and wheat noodle dish that curled around your tastebuds like a warm blanket
White Rose, a delicate shrimp dumpling that felt like eating a savory cloud
Banh Xeo, my favorite, a crunchy, savory, heavenly pork pancake that will have you coming back for more
I also tried the famous Bahn Mi shop that Anthony Bourdain made famous, but I still didn’t think it beat out my favorite, Banh Mi 25 in Hanoi.
- Get Bespoke Clothing
Made-to-measure suits, dresses, and jeans? For a fifth of the price of mid-range duds in the States? COUNT ME IN! We met the sisters who run Tu Nhi Clothing on Hoang Dieu in the middle of town on a recommendation from my traveling companion, Irene. The ladies made us feel right at home, and in no time we were measuring every inch of my body for all sorts of new garments! It’s a process that takes a few days, but you won’t want to leave Hoi An anyway, so go for it!
- Explore Ancient Town
The road shuts down to motorbike and vehicle traffic, and pedestrians cram the cobbled streets of Ancient Town, a relic from the 15th century and a fusion of culture. From the wooden Japanese bridge to distinctly French architectural flourishes, Ancient Town is unlike any other. At night, you can spend a buck or two and light a paper lantern to float down the river with a wish. The twinkling lights floating away create a magical atmosphere in the warm night air, and for a moment you might think you’ve entered a Disney movie.
- Take a Road Trip to Ancient Temples
Vietnam’s Hindu history comes to life at the ancient temple complex of My Son, about a 90-minute motorbike drive away from Hoi An. Hopping on a scooter and zipping through small towns and rice fields is half the adventure. The staggeringly old temples, built from the 4th to 14th century (!!) is the other half. Getting a first-hand look at the destruction wreaked by American bombing in Central Vietnam is a sobering dose of reality, the crumbled brick laid by ancient hands lying in piles next to the once-grand edifice.
- Learn to Cook Vietnamese Food
The much-disputed culinary capital of Vietnam (though many will argue a case for Hanoi or Saigon), there are cooking classes aplenty in Hoi An. Highly recommended is Grandma’s Home Cooking Class, which includes a trip to the market and instruction on Vietnamese-style haggling techniques. We were invited into the home of our new friends, the ladies who run Tu Nhi, and we cooked a feast! Homemade spring rolls, banh xeo, cao lao, steamed fish with prawns, and more, all in the comfort of our new friend’s home. Hoianese hospitality knows no limits.
- Go to the Beach!
Hoi An is one of the few cities in Vietnam that has a beach within it’s limits. The shoreline is crammed with cafes and restaurants, and there are few salesman slinging their wares, but the water is nice, the sand is clean, and you mix with locals as well as tourists as you laze in the sunshine.
Hoi An will captivate you from the moment you arrive. Whether you stumble upon temples tucked down back roads, stroll the night markets ablaze with colored lanterns, or linger over Tigers with friends at the restaurants that line the waterfront, you will be sad when it is time to say goodbye.