Hoi An Travel Guide: What to Do in Vietnam's Most Charming City
Every country seems to have that one city, with its crumbling walls, cobbled streets and pastel hues, that charms every visitor. Or in today’s world, goes viral on Pinterest and Instagram.
And it tends to be the sort of destination where there actually isn’t much to do other than absorb its beauty. Hoi An is just that place in Vietnam.
This beautiful town, sometimes referred to as the Venice of the East, is where you go to soak in local life, through long cycles along its colourful streets, the flavours of its punchy street food and the sounds you hear (cough *motorbikes* cough) along the way.
But such an abundance of charm has made Hoi An incredibly popular along the Banana Pancake backpacker trail. Which means the city also comes with its fair share of tourists. Probably more so than any other place in Vietnam. My top tip: visit during the off-peak travel period (May-July) to make the most of your visit. We arrived on what just so happened to be a major public holiday in South Korea, and the streets were absolutely rammed. So much so that we had to stop cycling in order to not bump into someone at every turn. Things quieted down a few days in, but this certainly impacted my initial impressions of Hoi An. Yet despite the crowds, the city still managed to wrap me around her little finger. Here are all the reasons why.
1. The beautiful views along the canal: Hoi An sits along the Thu Bon river, and was once the most important trading port in the East Vietnam Sea. As a result, the city’s evolved with a cultural blend of influences as varied as Portuguese, Dutch and Japanese. This mix reveals itself in the beautiful architecture found throughout the Old Town and alongside the canal - with the highlight being the Japanese Covered Bridge built in the 16th century. Walking along the canal is a delight. You can leisurely make your way to the famous bridge, taking in all the local sights as you go. Start just before sunset and you’ll also see those beautiful paper lanterns come to life.
2. Its many incredible coffee shops: So if you’ve been following me for a while, you know I have this thing with coffee. See Salento, Medellin, and Luang Prabang. For me, excellent coffee is as good a reason as any for visiting a new city. And on these grounds (see what I did there?), Hoi An seriously makes the cut. First and foremost, you can try an iced Vietnamese coffee, or Cà Phê đá. These are made using medium or dark roasts, filtered through a traditional Vietnamese drip, served over ice and blended with condensed milk. They are thick, creamy and if done right, practically melt in your mouth. And you can find them in Hoi An’s many superb coffee shops. We sampled our first version in the trés chic Hoi An Roastery and then worked our way through the rest of town. The Expresso Station has some fantastic charcoal-blends that come with a side of stunning cafe interiors. And I spent one long, lazy afternoon in T’Aroma enjoying a few delicious rounds of cappuccinos.
3. The chance to get my clothing tailor-made: Hoi An is the town of tailors. Because of its heritage as a trading port, it became a tailoring hub along the Silk Road too. And the tradition continues, but now its the tourists that come to stock up. So much so that there are more than 400+ tailors scattered throughout Hoi An. I’d highly recommend Yaly Couture, a well-run and renowned tailor in the heart of the Old City. The service is impeccable and you can take your time picking fabrics, colours and cuts that work for you. They also have a stack of catalogs you can use for inspiration. I had a boyfriend blazer and classic white button-up done and the whole experience was so much fun - everything from choosing my designs to getting fitted to final delivery. And whilst I waited for my brother to design his pieces, I had lunch with the Yaly staff and had to chance to try some delicious homemade Vietnamese treats to honour the new moon. Just make sure to plan accordingly, as you’ll need a few days to get your pieces created. If you’re only around for a few nights, go to a tailor your first day to give enough time for picking up your pieces before you leave town.
4. Delectable sandwiches at Bánh Mì Phượng: This place rose to prominence through Anthony Bourdain-fame. Which in my book means a lot. I will happily hunt down Bourdain recommended foodie spots over the planet. Because without fail I’m always treated to something delicious. And this hole-in-the-wall Bánh mì shop was no exception. It’s nothing more than a (very crowded) stall but you’ll easily spot it by the queues that wrap around the corner.
The Vietnamese Bánh mì sandwich is the true definition of fusion food. The French introduced the baguette and pate in the form of a crasse-coute, a sandwich which includes ham, cheese and butter too. But once wheat became a part of the local diet, the Vietnamese added their own twist, and landed on the Bánh mì we all know and love today. Of course, I’d still recommend trying this sandwich all over town - all over the country in fact - but at Phượng you’re guaranteed at least one delicious experience.
5. Make-your-own fresh spring rolls at Bale Well restaurant: Blink and you’ll miss it. Bale Well is tucked away in a little back alley and doesn’t top the list of best places to eat in Hoi An. But it was probably my favourite meal in town. There’s nothing much of a menu as you only have one option: an order of fresh spring rolls.
But you’ll be pleasantly surprised when your waiter returns with a stack of ingredients to assemble them yourself: rice paper, pork, pancakes, fresh herbs such as coriander and mint and a delicious dipping sauce. He’ll show you how to assemble everything in one seamless fashion and then you’ll find it impossible to do so yourself. But give it a go. That first bite will still make all your (messy) efforts worthwhile.
6. Rainbow-coloured paper lanterns: If you’ve ever seen a photo of Hoi An, it probably has a lantern or two. They truly epitomise this Vietnamese city. Don’t miss the opportunity to watch these multi-coloured beauties come to life at least one of your evenings in Hoi An. You’ll find them scattered throughout the city’s streets, in every souvenir shop and floating along the water too.
You can also pay a few dong to light one yourself and let it loose on the river. Though when you see the mess left behind every morning, you’ll probably be put off. And I get it. The lanterns are a little gimmicky. But it’s impossible to deny how beautiful they look twinkling together across that red-pink sky at dusk.
7. Souvenirs with purpose at Reaching Out: If you’re looking to pick up a few treasures before you head back home, then look no further than Reaching Out. This shop and teahouse, located in the centre of town, is a social enterprise that provides employment for local artisans with disabilities. Established in 2000, you can find anything from pottery to silverwork to textiles and each and every piece is one-of-a-kind. I picked up a beautiful hammered silver ring that I’ve worn practically every day since.
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