The thing about Hoi An is that its very popular destination. Very, very popular. And unlike, say Hanoi, which is super crowded because everyone and their mother wants to live in the capital, tiny Hoi An is densely packed thanks to all of the visitors. We were there in April – which is considered an off-season – and still the quaint town felt at times a bit like Disneyland.
But the other thing about Hoi An is that there are plenty of good reasons to come – plethora of tailors more than ready and willing to produce custom-made suits in two days time, bucolic countryside and sandy beaches, the Banh Mi Queen, pedestrian only (!) streets, and atmospheric old-town preserved from centuries past. We were here for all the right ones, aka all of the above. And we tried our best to ignore the first bit about the crowding. Which mostly worked. Except that time we went to the night market. But we’ve blocked that part out of our memories, so I can’t say anything about that.
We spent a relaxing week in Hoi An, and although the town is pretty small, we never ran out of things to do. You can easily spend a few days at the beach, a day exploring the architecture of old town – which has been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a few more days visiting tailor shops to order your new wardrobe for when you have to return to real life. I have no less than two posts lined up on Hoi An tailors, but I also wanted to give a glimpse of Hoi An town itself.
Hoi An is special because it survived 20th century wars intact, which is somewhat of a miracle considering most of the rest of Vietnam has been bombed to smithereens and had to be rebuilt. It’s quite a marvel not to be constantly reminded of the painful war, from which scars are still evident all over the rest of Vietnam.
Beauty is the word of the day, everyday in Hoi An, Vietnam.
Hoi An feels like a throwback in time. In the 15th – 19th centuries the town used to be a large East Asian trading port, with Dutch, Chinese, French, Indian and Japanese merchants setting up shop to ply their wares. Back in the day, Hoi An was among the most prosperous and largest ports on the continent. Legend has it, that the hear of Asia – the Dragon – lays beneath the ground of Hoi An. Neat, huh?
Many of the buildings are painted in French colonial yellow, the incense fumes lure in the good luck (and good sale!), and silk lanterns blow the wind. With little ladies biking in their conical hats, you don’t have to try that hard to be romanced a 100+ years back.
A lot of the warehouses, shops, and temples have persevered through time, and as of recent years restored to create a rich, layered look that sadly has vanished in large parts of Vietnam. We had the most amazing afternoon tea at the Reaching Out Tea House, which was probably the most elegant and beautiful experience we’ve had in Vietnam. Reaching Out started out selling handmade earthenware in traditional Hue style, and from there created a tea shop which serves delicious teas, coffees, and snacks in the handcrafted serving pieces from their shop. All of the staff are speech and hearing impaired, which makes for an unbelievably beautiful, silent retreat. If you go to only one place in Hoi An – make it Reaching Out Tea House. I am still wistful about those hammered brass coffee filters that silly silly me did not purchase.
Besides taking an hour or two to hang out at the Reaching Out Tea House, I would actually recommend getting up really early to properly enjoy Hoi An. I was up before sunrise a few times and it was pretty glorious. So many old buildings all to myself – Perfection.
Another great bit about getting up before dawn is the heat factor. In April, by 8 am Hoi An was already blazing hot. A much better way to spend the rest of the morning and early afternoon is at the beach, under an umbrella, or at the hotel’s infinity pool. Which is pretty much how my days in Hoi An went.
There are two beaches in Hoi An – one is apparently “tourist” beach and the other one is “popular with locals.” I have only been to the one popular with locals – the An Bang Beach, and had a pretty great time. It may not be a Thai island, but for being a mere 10-minute biking distance from a major historic destination, it’s pretty damn good. The beach is completely deserted during the day, and there are plenty of beach loungers and umbrellas set up by seafront restaurants. Le Banyan seems to be the expat hangout. Convenient for iced coffees, but I would suggest skipping the bloody marys…
The other charming bit of Hoi An are the rice paddies and the lush country side. We explored a bit, and found a really cute restaurant half way between the town and An Bang beach – The Field Restaurant. We had a great meal, made even better by the countryside setting. The food was great, the staff gracious, and it was wonderful to be away from the hubbub on touristy old town. Highly recommend.
A tip on choosing where to stay in Hoi An – yes, old town is charming. It is also incredibly touristic. Meanwhile, the beach is a bit far for walking to old town. So consider an in between location. We totally lucked out with an introductory deal on a new hotel, which was a 15-minute walk from old town, and 10-minute bike ride from the beach. The room rate included complimentary bicycles. And a buffet breakfast. The greatest bit – according to Sergey – is that each room had its own wifi router. The greatest bit according to me – an infinity pool. Did I mention that we only spent $20 a night? Vietnam pretty much takes the cake for good deals.
And in closing, let me just put this out there: Madam Khan, the Banh Mi Queen is totally worth the trip to Hoi An. If I close my eyes and concentrate really hard I can almost taste the goodness of that sandwich. Partly because her banh mi comes out almost exactly the same – and always delicious – every single time. And we’ve had these banh mis almost every day during the week that we spent in Hoi An.