When visiting Vietnam, many tourists head to the bustling cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. But outside those two places, beautiful rivers, beaches, mountains and forests are just waiting to be discovered.
Whether you choose to cycle through rice fields or ride the country’s iconic railway, one stop that should be on your list is the delightful city of Hoi An.
Something to know
Vietnam was colonised by France in the mid-1800s. When its people rose up against their oppressors almost a 100 years later, the Americans quickly stepped in.
What followed was a bloody, brutal 20-year civil war, which only ended when the Americans left in 1975. This victory over the US Army, and the fact that it is a communist country, make Vietnam unique.
What’s great about it
Hoi An’s architecture is influenced by its time as a French colony. The old town buildings are beautifully preserved, and will stay that way, as the city is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Today, the former homes and shops are filled with all things touristy, but it’s still a delight to walk through the narrow cobblestone streets.
Aside from the cityscape, the food is the all-star attraction in Hoi An. Think you know pho? Wait until you try it here. Each bowl is served with a heaped basket of greens – mint, coriander, bean sprouts, lettuce and more – to toss into your soup.
There’s a huge variety of other Vietnamese delights to be discovered. Another plus is most people speak a bit of English, so it’s easy to communicate with restaurant staff.
What’s not so great
Hoi An is definitely a tourist town, and even though you’re one of them, it’s not ideal. You don’t really get a view of how locals live because the streets are dedicated to tourists. Shop after shop of tailors and noodle houses get quite repetitive.
The other drawback is that the beach – while not far – is not in town.
The taxi situation is also tough. If you try to get a taxi on the street, drivers will try to get a much higher rate from you. If you’re already tired and just want to go back to your hotel, the last thing you want to do is start haggling.
Things you should definitely do
1 Eat everything. Hoi An offers some of the freshest cuisine in all of Vietnam, and that is saying something. Local delights include “white rose”, a special dumpling made of shrimp and rice flour noodle; and cao lan, a noodle dish made with water from the city’s oldest wells – truly a Hoi An–only dish.
If sandwiches are your thing, you won’t want to miss the banh mi, a crusty baguette smeared with butter and pate and stuffed with greens and barbecued meat.
There is also delicious coffee available wherever you go.There’s coffee with a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk in the glass to satisfy your sweet tooth.
2 Get clothes and shoes made. Hong Kong has its share of talented tailors, but Hoi An’s is on another level. Tailor shops are everywhere and offer the latest designs in men’s and women’s fashions. Just pick the style you like and the tailor will measure you on the spot.
You’ll have a new outfit in 48 hours. It may take a couple of attempts to get the perfect fit, so make time for a few extra fittings.
While a tailor-made suit or LBD (little black dress) may not be a huge novelty, getting custom-made shoes isn’t something you see every day. Hoi An is home to almost as many cobblers as tailors. If you see a pair you like at the cobblers, you can choose from an endless selection of leathers, with almost any colour, pattern, embossing or finish you can think of.
Want a pair of Air Jordans with neon pink ostrich skin trim? Or a pair of Jimmy Choos in orange polka-dot suede? They can do that ... or at least something pretty similar. Shoes are usually ready in less than 48 hours, but just like the clothes, you’ll need to try them on a few times to make sure everything fits. Don’t forget to bargain and be specific about what you want.
3 Stroll about. The architecture and narrow streets of Old Hoi An make it perfect for taking a nice leisurely walk. At night, the city really comes to life, because lantern-making is one of the city’s main handicrafts. There are tiny pocket-sized models, huge Chinese orbs, teardrop shapes, cylinders and more, in every colour you could ever want. In addition to creating a beautiful vibe all across the city, they also make great souvenirs, because they are made of lightweight paper and fold up to fit in your suitcase.