Our Vietnam adventure has been full of excitement and fun so far. From the busy streets of Hanoi, their incredible food and the gorgeous mountains of Sapa to the lush waters of Ha Long Bay. We concluded our little tour of the northern (ish) part of the country with a quick flight down to Hoi An, by the central coastline. If there was a city that was more diverse and highly influenced by history, then its Hoi An. The mixture of styles includes old wooden Chinese shophouses, the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge and French colonial buildings. It seems like I am on a mission this year to visit culturally and historically diverse cities, with more posts to come about Singapore, Sofia and of course my trip last year to Sarajevo. The mix here at Hoi An is different though and it might sound a bit like Hanoi, but never have I seen so much of a combination of Japanese, French and Chinese influences.
The old town of Hoi An is probably one of the most well preserved, with UNESCO World Heritage status since 1999. As a former trading port in the 15th to the 19th century, you can see how the structure of the old town has been left untouched since the merchant days, with the small shophouses and easy access to the waters for goods. This seaside town has seen traders from all around the world and the buildings itself gives a reflection to the French, Chinese and Japanese importance to this place. A wander around is a great experience and if you are ever in Vietnam, it is a place that should be high on your list!
The Old Town
The old town is peppered with old temples and local shophouses but an iconic area is the Japanese Covered Bridge. This is a beautifully built bridge that is symbolic to the history of the city. In the 1590s, the Japanese community actually built this bridge to link themselves with the Chinese quarters in town. Upon entry to the bridge, you will see these statues (dogs and monkeys) guarding the bridge. There are many stories for the reasoning behind these animals. Some say that many Japanese Emperors were born in the years of the dog and monkey. Others say that the bridge’s construction started in the year of the monkey and ended in the year of the dog.
Make sure to check out the little temple on the bridge itself!
Hoi An have around five different heritage houses that can be visited. These merchant houses pre-date the French era and have been around for a very long time. They give you a good sense of how merchant houses used to look like all those years ago. Duc An House has the same family living there for over 400 years, it has gone from being a bookshop to being a medicine dispensary. In the later years it was the centre of anti French activities in Hoi An. The Old House of Tan Ky is a two floor building dating back to the 18th century and has many Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese influences. It backs into the river and has some amazing features and some exhibitions about previous traders.
Cantonese Assembly Hall
The ticket to the old town of Hoi An allows you to visit a few places and the Cantonese Assembly Hall should definitely be one of them. Here you will see really traditional Chinese design. It was originally built by people from Guang Dong as a place to rest for Chinese fishermen and traders who visited Hoi An. The statute of the dragon fountain is really impressive, along with the traditional house and courtyard.
Evening Lantern festival
We were lucky to have visited Hoi An during the evening of a full moon. Here, the whole old town becomes pretty much electricity free and the town is lit up by little candles and colourful lanterns. Traditionally, people would burn incense for good luck and make offerings at their family alters. But the tradition has now become a spectacular evening of beautiful colours. There will be lots of locals trying to sell you candles to float onto the waters or even get into their little boats and paddle along. It is quite a sight!
Cam Nam Island Biking
One of my favourite days in Hoi An was when I borrowed a bicycle from my hotel and cycled to Cam Nam Island. Getting through Hoi An old town was impossible because of the car and bike free system, so make sure you follow the roads and go around. Once you cross the large bridge, you will be transported into a completely different world.
It is a perfect place to get lost, make random turns at villages and paddle through fields and fields in the middle of nowhere! Check out any abandoned buildings, talk to locals, go carefree, cross any old bridge and just cycle!
For some reason, everyone who has been to Hoi An cannot recommend the tailors there enough! The back streets are packed with tailors ready to custom fit a nice suit for you. The prices are a fraction to what you pay in London and the quality is pretty good. We were recommended by our hotel to go to Bi Tailors and we found the lovely owner greeting us and giving us a stack of magazines to choose styles from. Once we picked one, it was a wander round the shop to find the right colours and materials before the fitting started. You pay a deposit and come back the next day to do a fitting. Its all very simple! This is not just for guys! Girls can also get amazingly fitted Chinese cheongsams!
Ang Bang Beach
Since Hoi An is by the water, there was bound to be a beach somewhere. About a 10 -15 min cab ride from the old town is Ang Bang beach. It is a sandy beach with lots of nice little restaurants and cafes serving up great local seafood!
We had dinner at the Purple Lantern and managed to try some of the local dumplings! This was not your typical dumpling for sure!
After trying out the Bahn Mi at the side of the street in Hanoi and loving it, we were delighted to find out that the self claimed best Bahn Mi of Vietnam was in Hoi An. Madam Khan (aka Banh Mi Queen) was near our tailors and she served up these delicious sandwiches!
Miss Ly Cafe 22
So this place seems to be the most popular restaurant in Hoi An and the queue and waiting time surely reflected it. We were lucky that our wait wasn’t too long and we had a wonder along the river while we waited and it was definitely worth the wait! We tried their famous White Rose – silky shrimp dumplings with onions. It was so smooth and delicious!
We also had the local dish of Cao Lau which were thick noodles with roasted pork and herbs. A bit dry but still a tasty dish!
We seemed to have tried all three of their menu’s Hoi An Specalities with the final dish of Fried Wontons of pork, shrimp, tomato and vegetables. It was a special dinner and one we will remember, especially how you can walk into the kitchen (towards the toilets) and see Miss Ly and her mother cooking and being great chefs, while her husband is doing the front of house!
Hoi An continues to offer great coffee shops just like in Hanoi. In fact some of the local cafes have integrated really well with the local shop house themes and set up really nicely. Definitely head to Hoi An Roastry for a nice cup of coffee. They are dotted around town. But for a truly nice cup, head to Expresso Station – a little hidden but their iced coffee is delicious and refreshing!
All in All
There really cannot be a better way to finish off this incredible journey down Vietnam. Hoi An is such a small and cute little town with so much to see and do. The food is amazing and unique, the buildings are gorgeous and just make sure you visit if you get a chance!
Also published on Medium.