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Hoi An, Vietnam: How to shop, what to eat and where to stay in the stunning heritage town

By: Rachael Wheeler

When I emailed my parents a list of ten well-researched possible destinations from Singapore and asked them to choose one, I was taken aback when Hoi An in Vietnam came up trumps. Admittedly, I’d decorated it with six hopeful asterisks and purposefully left off Bintan (for I would be playing tour guide), but I was still expecting the reply, “Love, let’s just get the ferry to that island next door – you know, Bobtan.” But not this time! Their friends Lyn and Alan (“from two doors down – you know, the ones with the pond”) recently had a wonderful time (“bought all sorts of lanterns for the rockery”), and so we were going to give it a go.

Flick through the gallery above for heaps of photos from Rachael’s holiday in Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An


Hoi An is pretty accessible from Singapore – you can fly direct to Da Nang in under three hours and then it’s a 30-minute zip south. Many people opt to stay at one of Da Nang’s large, modern beach resorts and drive into Hoi An for the day, but our plan was to stay close to the town and soak up its oldie-worldy charm. This central Vietnam town is one of the most beautiful in the country, with stunningly well-preserved architecture from the 15th to the 19th century, when it was an important trading port.

It’s easy to see why UNESCO granted Hoi An World Heritage status (and why Lyn and Alan had such a blast) – wandering the bustling, winding streets is like stepping back in time. There’s not a single modern development in sight; almost all of the original homes, temples and bridges have been protected and conserved. You can see the influence of Chinese, Dutch, Indian and Japanese settlers across the colourful town, where local businesses trading from traditional shophouses with open fronts. Lanterns of all colours, shapes and sizes are strung everywhere, thickening in density as you reach the dazzling heart of town, the Thu Bon River. By night, this is alive with floating lanterns, which happy old ladies sell to tourists for wishes before inviting them into their rickety boats for a water release.

Hoi An isn’t huge; a grid of six or seven streets make up its centre, lined with restaurants, bars, galleries and tailors. Oh-so-many tailors. Shopping was one of the main reasons behind my visit (aside from escorting the crumblies): I wanted to return to Singapore’s expensive shores with dozens of made-to-measure outfits that had been whipped up for small change.

Forget shoe sizes – my sandals were fitted according to a drawing of my foot!
Forget shoe sizes – my sandals were fitted according to a drawing of my foot!

 

Shopping
In hindsight, the advice I’d offer others when it comes to getting clothes put together is to do your homework and have a set of printed designs ready. On the first evening, I had some vague ideas in my mind about original pieces I wanted to create, but it became abundantly clear how little I’d thought through the cut and detail when the lovely Vietnamese ladies were firing questions at me about buttons, seams and straps. Instead, I went back to the hotel, spent some time surfing my favourite high-end fashion sites and printed off dozens of ideas.

The whole process was smooth from there on in. I was able to tell the girls at Viet Town Silk exactly which features I wanted and how they would sit on my body – to the millimetre – and we spent hours picking out colours and materials.

You don’t have to start from scratch – my mum gave them a beloved Marks and Spencer tunic and had five copies made in every colour (which collectively cost less than the original). Likewise, my dad picked some trousers from the store and had them altered to his liking for next to nothing. It’s fortunate that they were happy to grab dollar-fifty beers at one of the many quaint bars outside while I played Stella McCartney inside.

One thing to keep in mind: designing (if imagining the front of a Chloe dress sewn to the back of a Dior one counts as “designing”) is very sweaty work – there’s no air-con and you’ll want to try everything on once or twice to ensure the fit is perfect. It’s so worth it though – I made three visits in 24 hours and left very merrily with five summer dresses, two maxis, three tops and a jumpsuit. All in, just under 300 Singapore bucks.

After that, I was caught up in a shopping extravaganza! I went on to make a direct copy of some beloved heels ($30) and picked out three pairs of flat sandals – made with coloured leather of my choice and sized using stencils of my feet ($10  each). From there I discovered patent weekend bags, vintage-style belts, ridiculous floppy hats, mosaic salad bowls, vibrant cushion covers, hand-painted fans and a whole host of paper lanterns. My parents were paralytic by the time I spent my final dong on a set of faux gold chopstick holders.

Shopping in Hoi An: The ladies won’t rest until your outfit is the perfect size
Shopping in Hoi An: The ladies won’t rest until your outfit is the perfect size

 

Shopping tips
– Follow a recommendation like I did – there are hundreds of tailors
– Make time for a fitting and alterations a few hours before you collect
– Feel free to ignore the terrible 90s catalogues in all the stores
– Ask to see the full range of material – there’s often more out back
– The more visuals the better – these talented ladies can sew anything
– All prices are negotiable, but it’s more about agreeing on deals than haggling to the death – three for two or knocking 30 percent off was all I managed

Top five stores
– Viet Town Silk, 127 Phan Chau Trinh Street
– A Dong Silk, 62 Tran Hung Dao Street
– BeBe, 13 Hoang Dieu Street
– Yaly Couture (high end), 358 Nguyen Duy Hieu Street
– Minh Khang (shoes), 732 Hai Ba Trung Street

The colonial-style Anantara occupies the best riverside spot in town
The colonial-style Anantara occupies the best riverside spot in town

 

Staying in town
To nail all the tailoring early and immerse ourselves in Hoi An’s distinctive charm, we wanted to spend the first few days in the heart of town. While there are heaps of decent-looking hostels scattered around, the 40-degree heat is likely to push you towards booking a hotel. In which case, the Anantara Hoi An easily has the best location, facilities and ambience.

Plonked right on the river next to the central market, the beautiful colonial-style hotel is a four-minute walk from town. Its picturesque location is ideal for exploring Hoi An; you can hit the markets and temples early, retreat to the pool when the sun kicks in and wander back towards town as its millions of lanterns sparkle to life.

I stayed in a stylish, split-level room that overlooked the floral courtyard, while my parents’ room had a view across the elegant pool. The Anantara’s main restaurant, Lanterns, opens out across the river, and munching pancakes from the glorious breakfast buffet while watching the local boats chug by was quite the treat.

Hoi An’s trademark lanterns hang from stalls, trees, doorways and rooftops
Hoi An’s trademark lanterns hang from stalls, trees, doorways and rooftops

 

Eating out
There are four lovely dining options at the Anantara (Heritage Bar, under a huge lantern-strewn tree, is particularly atmospheric), but you must also sample the plethora of local eateries. Hoi An isn’t a party town where tourists hit clubs until 4am – it’s a foodie town where everyone stuffs their faces until rolling home by 11pm.

I can happily report that every morsel I gobbled in Hoi An – from high-end restaurants to street stalls – was tremendous.

Top five eats
Mango Room, 111 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street
A modern, tropical shophouse on the river that serves up innovative Asian fusion dishes and mean cocktails. Despite it being one of the poshest joints in town, each incredible course was no more than five bucks.

Morning Glory, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street
This popular, airy shophouse serves up local grub for Western palates. And you won’t believe the cheap prices.

Miss Ly Cafeteria, 22 Nguyen Hue Street
You’ll need to book a table at this famous, arty Vietnamese restaurant before filling up on hearty and inexpensive local dishes.

Seedlings, 41 Nguyen Phuc Chu Street
This shophouse has lovely river views and the friendliest staff in town – its upliftment programme trains up young people for the hospitality industry.

Trip Nguyen, 736 Hai Ba Trung Street
Look out for this quaint, open-fronted spot along a busy shopping street for the cheapest beers in town and a mean bar snack.

The Nam Hai's one-bedroom villas are perched on the sand
The Nam Hai’s one-bedroom villas are perched on the sand

 

The beach
I haven’t had a chance to mention Hoi An’s beaches – which are a 15-minute cycle or short taxi ride from town – but that’s not a reflection of their quality. Quite the opposite; the huge expanse of white sand that runs from Da Nang to Hoi An is one of the widest, most pristine beaches I’ve seen in Asia.

I was fortunate enough to enjoy the outstanding stretch that ran past The Nam Hai on the outskirts of Hoi An. We’d opted to spend the latter part of our trip at this luxurious beach resort, one of the top-rated hotels in the world.

After three days of buzzing around the happy, humid old town alleyways, stepping into the sleek, serene Nam Hai was like a cool embrace from someone with exceptional class and an ethereal sense of calm.

The focal point of the elegant hotel, which scored a 90.3 in this year’s Condé Nast Traveler’s Gold List of the World’s Best Places to Stay, is three ultra-modern infinity pools that graduate towards the ocean. Everything is built with locally sourced grey stone and dark wood, creating a trendy, authentic feel, plus there are gravity-defying water features and chic furnishings all over the place.

The Nam Hai is made up of 40 pool villas (one to five bedrooms) and 60 one-bedroom villas, cleverly arranged on the sand so that each one has a glimpse of the waves. Our one-bedroom villa was a plush, lofty space that followed the grey stone and dark wood theme, with a huge four-poster bed elevated in the middle. Naturally, I was on the silk-lined daybed (which, to be fair, was bigger than my normal bed at home).

After 40 seconds inside the Nam Hai, thoughts of never leaving swirl and twirl and settle on the brain. Any ideas I had about returning to Hoi An for animal print loafers were abandoned in favour of flailing my limbs carelessly from an oversized hammock. The most exertion I managed was a morning yoga session and barefoot wander along the long beach.

The Nam Hai’s edible offerings were, of course, exquisite, and their first meal of the day was a breakfast of champions – really posh, well-fed champions. A summary of the hotel’s approach to cuisine? My latte didn’t come with a spoon and sugar bowl, it arrived with a cinnamon stick coated in a spiral of carefully placed demerara grains.

It’s pretty safe to say that I didn’t want to pop my Hoi An bubble when our time in Vietnam came to an end. It’s a special, unique place and I will return soon with seven empty suitcases.

It's hard to imagine that My Son remained undiscovered for 300 years
It’s hard to imagine that My Son remained undiscovered for 300 years

 

Temples


While there are lots of interesting temples to explore in Hoi An’s old town, two other culturally significant sites are a short drive away.

My Son
Head through the paddy fields towards the mainland and you’ll reach the fascinating site of My Son in under an hour. It’s home to 70 Hindu temples and tombs, which were built by Cham kings between the 4th and 14th centuries. Incredibly, they were abandoned when the realm fell apart in the 1600s and remained undiscovered until the French stumbled across them in 1898.

The Americans bombed My Son in 1969, during the Vietnam War, obliterating some of the temples. Others, though, are amazingly preserved, with startlingly clear Sanskrit detail and depictions of Shiva.

Tip: Get in and out before busloads of tourists roll up at 9am.

Marble Mountains
Take an hour to explore this, the largest of the cluster of limestone and marble hills on the outskirts of Da Nang. The views from the top are worth the sweaty clamber, plus there are a number of interesting Buddhist temples inside the caves.
Tip: Check the lift is working unless you fancy a steep hike, and steer clear of the marble salesmen.

Posing with auntie after releasing my water lantern (and wishing for 28 pairs of handmade shoes)
Posing with auntie after releasing my water lantern (and wishing for 28 pairs of handmade shoes)

 

Make it happen
Getting there:
You can fly direct to Da Nang four times a week as part of SilkAir’s Siem Reap route (check that Da Nang is the first stop). My flight took two hours and 40 minutes and cost around S$400 return.

Anantara Hoi An Resort: A deluxe room that overlooks the courtyard or pool starts at around $200 per night and includes breakfast for two.

The Nam Hai: A one-bedroom villa a few steps from the beach starts from around $800 per night and includes breakfast for two.

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