Vietnam is shaking off the shadows of its tough past, and tourism looks set to boom this decade. Hotels are heaving in Ho Chi Minh, Hanoi is becoming a tourist mecca and intrepid explorers are motorbiking the 1,700 kilometres between the two. Midway along the coast is Hoi An, a tranquil backwater that has something to offer everyone. Katie Roberts recently revisited the town with her family and, a decade on, found that little has changed.
Emerging largely unscathed from the conflict of the last century, Hoi An punches above its weight in the tourism stakes and is a must on any visit to Vietnam. Beaches, shopping, accommodation, history and great food: this town ticks all the boxes.
Listed by UNESCO just over a decade ago, Hoi An is a time capsule of historic buildings and winding streets set on the banks of the shallow Thu Bon River. Its heyday was 200 years back when it was one of the most important trading ports in the country, visited by Chinese, Japanese and European merchants.
Their legacy is the largely untouched historic temples, assembly halls, private homes and clan houses that they built. To enter most buildings, you need a sightseeing ticket, which can be purchased from the Hoi An Tourist Offices; the ticket is valid for three days. Among the notable sights are the Japanese Covered Bridge, the Museum of Trade Ceramics and the old family houses. Don’t forget the camera battery charger (like we did) – this relaxed little place is very photogenic.
Cook up a Storm
Whether it’s a $1 bowl of cao lầu taken out of the front of the fabric market, or a succulent plate of local crab at Brothers Cafe, food is one of the true delights of Hoi An. What’s more, there are numerous opportunities to learn about the cuisine by doing one of the short cooking courses on offer at many restaurants.
The original is Morning Glory, established and run by hard-working Hoi An local Trinh Diem Vy (prounounced Vee) who has established an international reputation in Vietnamese cuisine. For just US$27, the half-day course starts with a tour of the local market and an explanation of some of the wonderful exotic produce on hand: seafood, vegetables, spices, fruit and herbs. Taste, ask questions and learn how to select and use the fresh ingredients. Back at the purpose-built classroom on the top floor of a stunning old building, Ms Vy instructs the class on how to cook four typical dishes.
Vietnamese food is healthy, with an abundance of herbs and vegetables, lots of rice and its derivatives (rice paper and rice noodles), and only small quantities of meat; dairy is virtually non-existent. Only 10 percent of the population has a refrigerator, so the emphasis is on fresh ingredients purchased daily and consumed instantly.
There is also a reliance on produce in season, which is why a cook cannot promise what’s for lunch or dinner until they have seen what is available in the market that day. It certainly puts my recent Singaporean purchase of persimmons from Israel, kiwi fruit from New Zealand and beef from Australia into perspective.
The lesson is fun and practical, and peppered with numerous anecdotes from the years Ms Vy spent learning to cook at her parents’ restaurant, and now in her own three establishments. She touches on the medicinal value of food, her childhood and the harshness of rationing which lasted from 1945 to 1985 and had a significant impact on Vietnamese cuisine.
The food is simple, and preparation made a lot easier by the many staff who quickly take away empty plates, bring new ingredients and generally help out. Within a couple of hours we’ve cooked cabbage prawn soup, fresh spring rolls, spicy barbecued chicken and a zingy mango salad. We’ve eaten it all, too – and I scoff the spring rolls before remembering to take a photo!
Whether it’s five star or budget, Hoi An has a plethora of accommodation to suit all tastes. Some is located in the historic centre, some along Cua Dai Beach and more large-scale luxury options are going up on Ha My Beach on the road to Danang.
Betel Garden Homestay is located about a 10-minute walk from the town centre, down a quiet alley in a very local part of town. It’s cheerful and friendly, with only six or seven rooms. Hoi An is a crossroads point, with people heading either north or south, so chatting with other guests is an opportunity to pick up useful information for onward travel. In a stroke of luck, a few other children were staying here at the same time; they teamed up with our kids – allowing the parents to read their books in peace!
Shop till you drop: Hoi An is a retail paradise. For one thing, there’s no excuse to be naked in this town – there are countless tailor shops and a large fabric market where tailors work day and night. Accessorise the new outfit with jewellery and silk accessories, something the area is famous for: silk ties, scarves, gowns, pyjamas and even shoes can be found at good prices.
Numerous galleries in the old town feature original works by local artists. You’ll also find interesting and distinctive pictures made from lacquerware. Chinaware is a unique souvenir, as are silk lanterns in numerous shapes, sizes and colours.
Kids will easily spend their pocket money on trinkets: magnets, T-shirts and Vietnamese dolls sell for good prices, but bargaining is essential. The model boat shop captivated my six-year-old, and he desperately wanted a large replica of Captain Cook’s Endeavour as a souvenir. Alas, it was not to be.
Quality, authentic handicrafts can be found at Reaching Out; here, the proceeds go to the disabled artisans, and they don’t mind you watching them work.
Out of Town
Tired of shopping and eating? Grab a bike (most hotels supply them free of charge) and cycle out to Cua Dai Beach – a long, clean, white-sand beach with plenty of shells and waves. Head further north to An Bang Beach and come back via paddy fields and quiet back lanes. Not many children’s bikes (or helmets) are available, but the adult bikes have padded seats on the back where the little ones can sit back and enjoy the view while their parents huff and puff. You’ll be sharing the road with cars, motorbikes, carts and other cyclists, so take it easy.
About 40km from Hoi An is My Son, a UNESCO world heritage-listed group of temple ruins dating back to the eighth century. It’s a worthwhile half-day to visit the ruins, some of which were partially destroyed in the Vietnam War, but there is plenty to see and the jungle setting evokes an eerie atmosphere.
Trips to the Misty Mountains, north of Danang, and the Cham Islands, 15km off Cua Dai Beach, are easy to organise, as is a short boat ride down the river from central Hoi An.
Quick Guide to Hoi An
Vuon Trau – Betel Garden Homestay (small, friendly guest house)
Morning Glory Street Food Restaurant and Cooking School (book online or at the restaurant)
The Cargo Club Restaurant and Patisserie (for a relaxed breakfast, lunch or dinner on the balcony overlooking the river)
19 (cheap, tiny cafe serving food and “fresh beer” from the keg at 4,000 dong – 25 cents a glass)
Brothers Cafe (beautiful garden and tranquil restaurant in restored terrace houses by the river)
Reaching Out Handicrafts (fair trade shop supporting disabled artisans)
Yaly Couture (good place for tailoring if you are bewildered by the fabric market)
Bamboo Buddha (Delicious, gourmet French food with a Vietnamese twist but without a gourmet price tag)
A Handful of H’s: Ho Chi Minh, Hue, Halong Bay, Hanoi
Depending on the amount of time you have, the season, and your interests, it’s worthwhile tacking on at least one of the above destinations to your Hoi An trip. We chose Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and spent three days dodging motorbikes – there are allegedly four million in the city – and finding kid-friendly activities.
Get lost in the narrow aisles of Saigon Square and Ben Thanh markets as you bargain for cheap knock-off clothes, CDs, sunglasses and souvenirs.
A half-day trip to Cu Chi Tunnels is an adventure for the children, although some parts of the tour should be approached with caution; you might want to shield young eyes from the sinister booby traps and the 1960s film footage. Explaining the Vietnam War and concepts like communism and democracy to a six-year-old and an eight-year-old on the 90-minute journey to and from the tunnels proved challenging, a definite change from the usual game of “eye spy”. It’s possible to join an individual or group tour to the tunnels, but we chose to take a taxi for about US$60 and use the free guides at Cu Chi.
Teenagers and history buffs will find the War Remnants Museum and Reunification Hall (Palace) enlightening. Food is a delight across the city – whether it’s a simple baguette with pâté from an aunty on the street, or a Vietnamese feast in one of the beautiful, atmospheric old mansions.
There is lots of accommodation in the city centre (District One), but we chose the new Mövenpick Hotel, midway between the airport and the city centre. A large family room with a king-size bed and a double sofa bed was exceptional value. It’s about 10 minutes and US$3 to $5 into town in a taxi; make sure they use the meter.
Au Parc (good breakfasts and coffee in old French colonial style)
Nha Hang Ngon (wonderful Vietnamese food in a gorgeous old mansion)
Quan An Ngon 138 (bustling, authentic Vietnamese restaurant)
Tous les Jours (good value café and bakery serving croissants, cakes, coffee and drinks)
Make it Happen
Fly to Danang with Jetstar via Ho Chi Minh, with a stopover of several hours. SilkAir flies direct.