Why Hoi An Should Top Your Vietnam List
If you’re hungry for authentic experiences, world-class cuisine and unrivalled culture, Vietnam will quench your thirst and more. The growing economy and affordability make Vietnam an attractive place to visit for both seasoned travellers and families. One town in particular, located on the centre point of the coastline between South and North, offers unmatched local know-how and a truly immersive and credible Vietnamese experience.
Sitting on the Thu Bon River, the riverside city of Hoi An is a modern day time warp. Once called ‘Faifo’, the town was once a vibrant hub for commercial trading and an ideal resting spot for sea men and women taking shelter from the monsoon winds of the Southern China sea. Today, the town’s makeup is a mixed infusion of international cultures and influences, a melting pot of heritage and ancestry. From French colonial houses and ancient Chinese places of worship (which have earned Hoi An a place on UNESCO’S World Heritage list), to the animated Old Town to luxurious, Western-style boutiques and accommodation, there is charm to be found around every single corner. With a township of more than 152,000 residents, there’s no shortage of homesteads and local places to dine. Furthermore, Hoi An is one of the most welcoming and friendly places to frequent as an English-speaking traveller.
Visit the Old Town
For a dose of culture, spend a morning in the Old Town, the crown jewel of Hoi An. More than 800 UNESCO-protected buildings line the narrow streets here. The Japanese covered Bridge in the centre of the town, painted pink, offers ample photo opportunities against the flowing Thu Bon river. There is a fee to cross the bridge into the Old Town, but you can avoid this by entering the town at the opposite, less tourist-populated, end.
More than 200 shops, markets and stalls line the picturesque streets where one can find everything from handmade leather artisan shoes and buffalo leather jackets and bags to crafted oriental fans and authentic Vietnamese lamps. Don’t forget to bring your best haggle face.
Grab a bottle of local beer (Vietnom) and a bite to eat in one of the many river-facing international restaurants and casual-dining cafés or dead to Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School on the banks of the Hoi An river where you can learn to make speciality dishes like grilled fish in banana leaves, crispy pancakes rolled with herbs and beef salad in a bamboo basket.
At sundown the town is cradled in a sea of warm candle-light from the thousands of traditional Vietnamese lamps. The enchanting spectacle takes place each evening at 8pm when the lights are switch off and replaced with the gentle glow of lanterns as they sashay down the water.
Eat at The Banh Mi Queen
Anthony Bourdain’s trip to Banh Mi Phung skyrocketed the banh mi’s fame astronomically. Located on the outskirts of the Old town, the small family-run restaurant regularly has hour-long queues outside, predominantly filled with tourists all eager to taste the Vietnamese delight. The typical banh mi is a French baguette filled with pate, meats and fresh herbs, and is a perfect blend of French tradition and modern Vietnamese culture. If standing in the blistering heat for an hour doesn’t sound appetising then a trip to the equally impressive (if not more-so than Banh Mi Phung) Banh Mi Queen, also called Madam Khanh, is in order. The restaurant is located just minutes from Banh Mi Phung and caters for both meat and vegetarian eaters. Vegetarian options come with freshly prepared vegetables, egg, cheese and special in-house sauce while meat options come with pork, beef, chicken and ham. The shop, fronted by Banh Mi Phung, 81, is open from 7am to 7pm and serves more than 200 sandwiches per day. Two banh mi’s and two milkshakes costs around €2.
Madam Khanh - The Banh Mi Queen, 115 Trần Cao Vân, Phường Minh An, tp. Hội An
Make a suit at the Saville Row of Hoi An
More than 200 tailors line the cobbled streets at the entryway to the Old Town. Here, travellers can have bespoke clothing made in less than one day by some of the world’s most skilful tailors (some will even ship your new garb straight to your door if time is of the essence). But do some homework before entering a shop. It’s important to identify where the the tailor is sourcing their fabric, how many workers are there and what compensation do they get and if their practices are sustainable. If this is your first made-to-measure experience bring along a sketch of what you like and work with the tailor to bring your vision to life.
Rit, The Bespoke Experience, 52 Phan Chu Trinh, Phường Minh An, Hội An
Visit An Bang beach
Just 4km from the centre of Hoi An is An Bang beach and offers the perfect relaxation remedy after a busy day at the markets. Here is where you’ll find an upmarket selection of seafood restaurants as well as casual dining restaurants and a plethora of new hotels and apartments. The beach itself is well maintained with a selection of beach-front bars and mini beach clubs. Kunha’s Beach Club, linked to the Vietnam Backpackers Hostel nearby, is a great pitstop option for individuals, couples, large groups and families. There’s no door charge and facilities are free of charge once you purchase a drink or food. There’s a communal pool and play area for children (and big kids), lots of dining space and direct access to the beach with sun loungers and umbrellas. It should be noted that the current at An Bang beach can be extremely rough so weak swimmers should avoid the water when it’s noticeably rough.
Left, Kahuna' Beach Club. Right, An Bang beach.