Enticed by the draw of Vietnam? If you’re looking for a quick weekend getaway, you may already have Hoi An on your bucket list: an excellent alternative to the hectic worlds of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, with three times the charm.
Developed as a trading port between the 15th and 19th centuries, the ancient town centre of Hoi An has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999; not only is it remarkably well preserved, but it’s also become a centre of culture, pristine beaches and bucolic countryside all rolled into one incredibly charming town. There’s nowhere else in Vietnam that offers the same relaxed and welcoming vibes as Hoi An, making it the perfect 48-hour weekend getaway for Vietnam newbies and return visitors alike.
Located on the central Vietnamese coast just 30 kilometres (about an hour’s drive) south of Da Nang, Hoi An emerged as a trading port city for the Chinese, Japanese, and later, French colonists between the 15th to 19th centuries. Hoi An is known particularly today for its lanterns, which light up the city every evening all year round. Due to the Chinese and Japanese influence in the city, the use of colourful silk lanterns was popular decoration for shophouses, and also apparently indicated the provenance of its shopkeepers depending on the style of lantern hung by the door.
By night, the lanterns come alive, bathing the streets and riverside bridges in a warm candlelit glow. It feels as if there’s a festival happening all the time. Around Mid-Autumn Festival (aka lantern festival), when I managed to visit recently, the streets become even more enigmatic, with lion dances, dragon parades and celebratory drumming performed all over town.
What to Do
Explore Old Town
This is a no-brainer. Some may balk at cities being heavily developed for tourism, but in this case, the tourist demand has kept Old Town looking positively gorgeous. Streets are tree-lined and strictly pedestrianised, making it ideal for romantic long strolls and bicycle rides under the trees, with the occasional burst of pink azaleas upping the charm even more.
Everywhere you look, Old Town is made up of its original, mustard-yellow Chinese and Japanese shophouses, technicolour Buddhist temples, lively vegetable market lanes and tidbits of French colonial architecture, making for plenty of secret courtyards and alleyways to discover cafes and restaurants, tucked away from plain sight. A Japanese wooden bridge from the 1590s at the corner of town remains a popular sight-seeing spot.
In between browsing Vietnamese art stores and tailor shops (another must-do in town), sip an iced ca phe sua da (Vietnamese drip coffee with condensed milk) in an upstairs cafe (we like Hoi An Roastery for their fresh daily roasts), while watching tourists and locals go about their day below.
Hoi An Roastery, 685 Hai Ba Trung Street, Cam Chau, Tp. Hoi An, Quang Nam, Vietnam, +84 0235 3927 277
Visit a tailor
Some say tailoring is synonymous with Hoi An, and if you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind memento from your visit, you’ll want to get some clothes made. Tailors are skilled with suits and silk dresses, some even specialise with cashmere or leather goods, and they’re worth browsing even for on-trend casualwear in unique fabrics, with styles such as jumpsuits, two-pieces or sundresses. Within Old Town you’ll find plenty of tailors, but for a long concentrated avenue of tailors to choose from, head down Tran Hung Dao just on the northern periphery of the pedestrianised area. Your hotel may give you recommendations and discounts with partner stores too. One of the most famous in town is A Dong Tailors, which offers fixed prices. A men’s suit starts from US$50 while shirts go for US$15-20.
A Dong Tailors, multiple locations including 62 Tran Hung Dao Street, Hoi An, Quang Nam, Vietnam, +84 510 3910 579
If you’re going to cycle (or dare to rent a scooter or motorbike) in Vietnam, you might as well do it in Hoi An. Vietnamese traffic is notoriously cutthroat, but you won’t find the extremes of the busy streets in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh here. In fact, the streets in Hoi An are almost peaceful.
Most hotels offer bike rental services for free — just remember to stick to the right side (it’s a left-hand-drive country after all), and don’t get too thrown off by the frequent honking. You can either explore your own way around town, or you can sign up for a cycling tour (ask your hotel) that will take you to experience Hoi An’s pastoral beauty. Winding down relatively flat country paths, you’ll be able to meet local families, see water buffalo, ride through thick jungles where sea coconuts are farmed, and even take a detour to cruise down shallow canals in traditional circular basket boats unique to the region.
Fancy some sun and sand? We recommend cycling north 3km from Old Town to An Bang beach for its fine white sands and refreshing dip, a little paddle boarding or surfing, and to feast on fresh seafood at one of the many waterfront restaurants before cycling back to town.
Take a cooking class
The best way to delve into local Hoi An culture is through its food, and if you want to truly learn about how local residents eat here, you should take one of the numerous cooking classes on offer. From basic fresh spring rolls made with garden-fresh local herbs and vegetables to crispy deep-fried rice pancakes, sweet and tart seafood soup and moreish French-style banana flambé, you’ll be cooking up a feast and getting tips for impressing dinner party guests back home in no time.
What to Eat
Of course, Vietnam’s fantastic, fresh cuisine means it’s hard to eat poorly no matter where you choose to stop in for a meal. Here are five essential dishes to keep an eye out for in Hoi An:
- Cao Lau: For a dish you truly can’t find anywhere else, you’ll need to try Cao Lau. The soup noodle dish is made with thick and translucent rice noodles that not only give it a nice bite, but develop a unique flavour thanks to the use of local well water, mixed with the ash of gumtrees grown on indigenous Cham islands for a very faint licorice hint. It’s topped with smoky roast pork (very much like char siu), fresh herbs and Vietnamese croutons.
- Mi Quang: The second most iconic noodle dish in town is Mi Quang, made with wide, flat rice noodles in an intense turmeric and bone broth seasoned with fish sauce, black pepper, shallots and garlic. It’s then topped with your choice of protein, chopped peanuts, and the usual suspects in terms of Vietnamese herbs and vegetables: coriander, mint, banana flower, basil, perilla and lettuce.
- Banh Bao Vac: This pretty local delicacy is more well known as ‘white rose dumplings,’ nicknamed by French colonists back in the day. Translucent, light flour dumplings wrap dainty fillings made with pork or shrimp, and are topped with fried shallots. Make sure to dip liberally with the accompanying sauce made with shrimp broth, hot chillies, lemon and sugar.
- Tom Huu: This dish translates literally into ‘three friends,’ a unique fresh roll made with the ‘friendship of flavours’ between a filling of prawn and pork, wrapped in water mint leaves, and tied together with green onion.
- Banh Mi: With so many banh mi stores in Hong Kong, we’re certainly no stranger to the hefty Vietnamese sandwich. While there’s always a street vendor just around the corner with shelves stuffed with baguettes, arguably the best (and most famous) banh mi in all of Vietnam can be found just outside Old Town. Banh Mi Phuong was featured by Anthony Bourdain in his show No Reservations where he described the dish as a “symphony in a sandwich.” The other strong, divisive contender for top banh mi is a much meatier, richer sandwich from a tiny shop located in a less touristy part of town by the name of Madam Khanh. It’s operated by the very same octogenarian, fondly known as ‘The Banh Mi Queen.’ Visit both early on during your trip. You’ll want to go back for seconds.
Banh Mi Phuong, 2B Phan Chau Trinh | Hoi An, Hoi An 0510, Quang Nam, Vietnam, +84 90 574 37 73
Madam Khanh – The Banh Mi Queen, 115 Tran Cao Van Street, Hoi An, Quang Nam, Vietnam, +84 90 666 03 09
Where to Stay
Recently refurbished with a swish new wing, Vietnamese boutique luxury hotel La Siesta Hoi An Resort & Spa is conveniently located just at the edge of Old Town. The new colonial-style three-storey villa wing features 37 luxurious rooms all facing a brand new saltwater pool, in addition to the original freshwater pool.
From the new wing, choose from massive poolside suites that come with private Swedish saunas, spacious balcony rooms kitted out with claw-footed bathtubs, premium terrace suites with private jacuzzis, or even luxurious duplexes — perfect for families or close friends travelling as a group. Other luxe amenities include locally made spa toiletries, Samsung sound bar audio and espresso coffeemakers.
In the morning, dine from the Temple, a handsome new poolside restaurant, for its semi-buffet and free flow á la carte breakfast for international fare, or opt for modern Vietnamese signatures at Red Bean — widely recognised as one of the top-rated Vietnamese eateries in Hanoi.
After a long day of cycling or exploring Old Town, you’ll want to book in for one of La Siesta Spa’s signature treatments, where you’ll get to select your own massage oil and aromatherapy essences. Massages range from hot himalayan salt massages to Swedish techniques to Vietnamese herbal therapies, all well suited to release tension.
How to Get There
Direct flights from Hong Kong to Da Nang fly more than twice a day via Cathay Dragon, HK Express or Jetstar. From Da Nang International Airport, shuttle or taxi transfer takes about 45 minutes to an hour to reach Hoi An.