Stephen Bridger / March 2014
Vibrant yellows, blues and reds from picturesque buildings captivate my attention as I wander aimlessly through the colourful Central Vietnam town of Hoi An. On a rented bicycle with camera in-hand I sample local delicacies from food stalls in an open-air market before browsing the countless galleries and boutique shops that line the streets.
Recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site, Hoi An is a charming and delightful town of 120,000. Situated in the middle of the country, it is an ideal stop for those travelling from north to south or vice versa. With its art, shopping, dining and lively nightlife across the river, Hoi An is worth including on any Vietnam itinerary. The laid back pace and welcoming locals make Hoi An an ideal refuge from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi and Saigon.
What to do?
I would highly recommend renting a bicycle for a fun and easy way to explore Old Town and the surrounding neighbourhoods. An afternoon rental costs 50,000 VND, the equivalent of $2.50. The quiet pace and beautiful scenery makes cycling an attractive means of getting around. Unlike Hanoi or Saigon where only brave souls dare to venture into city traffic on anything with wheels, Hoi An is accessible to both leisurely pedestrians and exploring cyclists. Cycling around to marvel at scenic sites along the river or by the beach is light and effortless. You may also take a thirty-minute bike ride to the quiet farming village of Tra Que. There you can help farmers plant rice before joining a hands-on cooking lesson.
Hoi An is a playground for art lovers and serves as a small mecca for the creatively-inclined, attracting many regional artists and craft-makers. Street performers are out entertaining both tourists and locals and concerts are scheduled daily. Galleries are plentiful and lanterns stream across the streets of Old Town. At night the river is lit by hundreds of paper lanterns that are sold and released on the water -each lantern accompanied by a hopeful wish. The floating lanterns provide an atmospheric backdrop to the night market. Much of the architecture is traditionally Vietnamese but there are also subtle influences of French, Chinese and Japanese design. Being once a major trading port in Southeast Asia for Chinese and Japanese merchants, Hoi An could be described as melting pot of Eastern culture. Hoi An is also renowned for its garment production. A fitted men’s suit can be had for as little as $75 depending on the choice of fabric, a fitted woman’s dress perhaps a few dollars more. If you see an outfit in a fashion magazine, cut it out and take it to a tailor in Hoi An. They will make it for you. Allow yourself plenty of time as there will be a number of scheduled fittings depending on your order. A few dollars and smiles later you're ready to hit the trendy streets of any world-class city.
What to eat?
Hoi An offers local delicacies not found outside of Central Vietnam. One afternoon I stopped by a riverside cafe for lunch to indulge in my new favourite snack white roses, which are rice paper dumplings filled with shrimp. As the name suggests they look like white roses. For dinner, dining with locals on charming, petite picnic tables by the river is a fantastic way to treat yourself to regional flavours on a shoestring budget. I ordered two servings of another new favourite of mine. Cau Lau is a delicious combination of pork, noodles, greens, and bean sprouts. With each dish of Cau Lau costing just one dollar it's no wonder my fellow diners and I were asking for seconds! Typical of Vietnamese food, Cau Lau is fresh, clean and flavourful. The food isn't drowning in oil and each plate is a piece of art straight from the garden.
For those seeking variety or have had their fill of Vietnamese cuisine, The Green Chili is a place to check out. Although native to Hoi An, the chef is Italian trained and has a friend from Mexico who taught him everything there is to know about Mexican food. He also prepares an attractive surf n' turf plate with beautifully marbled steak from Australia accompanied by plump, jumbo king prawns. The chef is a social character and makes regular rounds to greet his patrons.
A word of caution…
Annual floods hit Hoi An hard for three or four days in November. The water levels generally range from two to five feet, and in one case reached ten feet back in the 1960's. It's a challenging few days for the locals and any tourists who find themselves in Hoi An when the water rises. The flooding is ingrained in their culture and is much a part of the local identity as the handcrafted lanterns that stream across the quaint streets. There is a sense of pride around the floods. Residents boast of heroic tales of rescuing stray dogs or recount a simple gesture of helping an elderly neighbour bail out water from a submerged kitchen. The floods seem to galvanize the community. The shops and homes are well equipped for such flooding, which is a fitting symbol of the resiliency of Hoi An residents, and Vietnamese people in general.
Hoi An continues to grow as fancy five-star hotels are popping up all over the place. Over the next decade an even larger tourism boom is anticipated. If you would like to avoid mass horeds of tourists visit sooner rather than later. Hoi An often draws comparisons to the mountain town of Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand in terms of its intimate size, the waterways, the laid-back atmosphere, the art, and the markets. And much like Chiang Mai, Hoi An is emerging as a significant tourist hub in Southeast Asia worth hanging out in.