In the hour before sunset, the rice fields are magic. The golden light bounces off each long blade of grass, creating the illusion of soft waves in an emerald green ocean. Dragonflies swoop dramatically as farmers tilt their nón lá (leaf hats) off their head, no longer needing the shelter from the sun. Just five minutes away, the delightful chaos of Vietnamese motorbikes weave through ancient streets past vine-covered yellow buildings. The traditional market, alive with towering piles of fresh herbs, baskets of live crabs, bricks of white tofu and mounds of fresh noodles, flanks the side of the Thu Bồn River. It’s not difficult to fall in love here.
We first visited Hoi An in 2015 during our life-altering trip around the world. We were younger then, although maybe not young enough to justify some of the methods of travel required to stretch our travel budget for almost a year, and arrived in an exhausted daze after taking an overnight bus from the beach town of Nha Trang over 300 miles south. Since, the historic riverside town has been widely praised as one of Vietnam’s must-visit destinations and when we returned in early February 2020, we found that it has, in fact 'caught on.' There’s a noticeable increase of foot and motorbike traffic, but with notoriety comes benefits, and amazing hotels, new restaurants and authentic activities with professional local guides are now abundant.
A quick google search will tell you that Hoi An’s ancient town is well worth a wander. The town’s placement, just five miles from the sea alongside the Thu Bồn River, historically made it a well-known trading port, drawing settlers from China, Japan, India, Portugal, the Netherlands, and of course, France. With architecture dating back to the 15th century, the ancient town is beautifully preserved and includes everything from wooden Chinese shophouses to colorful colonial buildings, as well as the famous Japanese covered bridge.
Souvenir shops aside, many of the historic buildings are home to custom tailors. Dating back to the silk route and passed down through generations, the art of tailoring can be found in more than 200 custom shops throughout the small city. Like magic, anything from a pair of custom shoes, to a ballgown, a leather jacket or a three-piece suit can be expertly crafted from reams of fabric in every quality, color and print imaginable.
We dip a toe in the shopping scene with a pair of custom-made sandals but, as usual, opt for more cultural and food driven activities during our recent visit. Highly recommended - a bicycle tour of the river’s surrounding small towns and countryside. On a leisurely ride, you’ll pedal along paths, learning about the local life and farming along the way. (Choose the afternoon ride and you’ll finish cruising through the aforementioned rice fields at sunset). A local food tour or cooking class with a visit to the central market should also be on every agenda. Hoi An is a foodie town, with incredible restaurants serving high-quality and locally sourced central Vietnamese cuisine. Each dish expertly balances five elements for health and well-being: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot. The cuisine is considered one of the world's healthiest, and after spending a couple weeks in Vietnam, we both notice feeling less full and more energized.
During our week in Hoi An, every meal is an event. Each day, we carefully consult our long list of favorite restaurants, choosing a lunch and dinner option so as not to miss out on the city’s best food. Although there is a fair share of western and European cuisine, stick with Vietnamese and you won’t be disappointed. Swing by the nondescript Banh Mi Chay stand, which is usually parked just outside of the ancient town, for a vegetarian sandwich expertly layered with various toppings like cucumber, tofu, cilantro, carrot, various sauces, and crushed peanuts on a freshly baked baguette. Bonus - it’ll cost you $0.65. A short bike ride out of the ancient town is well worth the effort for both Rom Bistro and Am Vegetarian. Order the Cao lầu - Hoi An's specialty dish - at either for greens, bean sprouts and fresh herbs on a bed of noodles made from rice that has been soaked in lye water for a unique chewy texture. If you’re looking for a slightly elevated option, Nu Eatery is a must - both the grilled pineapple and shallot salad and lemongrass ice cream prove to be just as good now as they were five years ago.
We’d fantasized about coming back to Hoi An for years and were worried it might not live up to our lofty expectations. But after a week of sipping strong Vietnamese coffee, cycling through busy streets, eating incredible food, meeting up with old friends and making new contacts for our Designed Trip, we find our love rekindled. There are some places in the world that are unlike anywhere else but have all of the ingredients - food, culture, history, people - for the perfect travel experience. This is one of those places. We step on the plane already planning our next trip back, and loving Hoi An more than we ever have before.
Experience the magic that is Hoi An in our 10-day redesigned Designed Trip: Vietnam: Rice Paddies, Local Eats & Bustling Streets.
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