“Detour from Cambodia” was the topic of our search; a warm and culturally rich location for a short 4 days. Having been to Thailand, Indonesia, China, Cambodia, we searched Vietnam…and stumbled into a treasure of “ideal” destinations!
Vietnam is probably the most under rated of Asian destinations (IMHO), with a most diverse range of options to choose from! Relax on the beautiful beaches along its coastline (Hoi An, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, Phu Quoc and Con Dao), cruise through the most stunning karst (limestone peaks) scenery at Halong Bay, stroll through the lush green stretches of rice paddies at Sapa, and colorful historic old quarters of old imperial cities (Hoi An, Hanoi) and the motorbike capital of the world, Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon).
Ok – so are you thinking what I’m thinking?! Uhhh this will require more than a month to explore!! 🙂 Fear not, remember our initial criteria my friends!
We picked Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage site and a city that best captures the true essence of Vietnam (when faced with a compressed time frame!)
Hoi An was once a busy commercial port of South East Asia due to its strategic location by the Thu Bon river (bordering the sea). Traders moved loads of silk, Chinese pottery and wood collected from East Asia to India, and then onwards to Europe. Over the next several decades, this town turned into a perfect amalgam of influences from the Chinese, Japanese, French and Dutch traders that can be noticed in all of its architecture, food and even religion.
Getting to Hoi An was fairly easy, we flew from Siem Reap into Da Nang, one of the biggest airports (closest to Hoi An) followed by an hour-long drive to the resorts. Though some guide books recommend staying in Da Nang and making a day trip to Hoi An old town, we recommend staying in one of the many BEAUTIFUL resorts by the coastline, or a hotel located within the historic town. This would be the perfect way to explore all that Hoi An has to offer!
Now, for our list of top things to do in Hoi An:
1) Check into one of the luxury resorts – (Recommendation: Nam Hai)
We had reserved an ocean-front villa at the Four Seasons Nam hai resort (see here)
We walked into a beautiful wide reception hall with a cool ocean breeze. The front desk assisted us with our check in, while we sipped on refreshing honey lemon tea and looked onto the gorgeous infinity pool meeting the ocean…
The property is expansive and we were taken to our villa in a golf cart with our luggage. The villa was breathtakingly beautiful with a lush green garden, and windows with carved wooden shutters all along the villa.
There was light music playing in the room (hidden speakers), and we were surrounded by the softest linen curtains flowing in the breeze, bonsai details and a gorgeous outdoor bathroom – talk about being spoilt by luxury! 😉
The main “bedroom” area is on a raised platform and enclosed by curtains, designed after an imperial emperor’s chamber. Admittedly, it takes a bit getting used to, especially the sunken area for the desk. However, we were in love with the architecture within a day 🙂
And how about a cup of coffee with THIS view (sigh!)
The final detail before we move on…the lounging pool! (enough said)
2) Enjoy the Beach (Han My beach)
In our case, we spent the afternoon relaxing by the private beach of the hotel (1km stretch of Han My beach)
An early morning walk by the beach…
Can you see the city of Da Nang in the horizon? The busy city boasts a beautiful stretch of tranquil beaches against a backdrop of mountains. You can also see the gorgeous Cham islands in the distance, these can be reached on a day-long excursion in the summer time. This is not advisable in the winter due to seriously strong winds and high tide, and so we admired them from a distance!
December offers great weather throughout the day, but the beach can be quite windy and the water was starting to get cold – lovely view with bright sun, but I’m not sure I want to jump in…
2) Walk through colorful old town of Hoi An
Read more on the walk through the old town here (previous post on Hoi An)
For some of you lazy folks, there is also a small “rikshaw” tour through the streets 🙂
3) Get a dress made in Hoi An; and maybe a shirt while you’re at it (Yaly Tailors)
Hoi An has become a tailoring destination of the world, and every second shop in the old town is dedicated to tailoring from a variety of fabrics! They can basically stitch you any clothing design you want, and in a matter of 24-48 hours, all at very reasonable prices. However, this process can be overwhelming and it’s best that you be well prepared in advance of your visit.
- Choose a shop based on prior research:
Just like anywhere else in the world, you get what you pay for! While there are literally hundreds of tailoring shops scattered through old town, and plenty of store fronts with pretty frocks and handsome suits (the like of what you see in all the US stores); resist the urge to be hustled in by one of these insistent saleswomen.
Top 10 tailors: We found this post to be very reliable for a good listing. We picked Yaly couture after much research.
2. Know what you want
This is very important as you will be hit by a barrage of questions when you enter the shop. So, have a fair idea of what you want stitched; suit, shirt, pants, dress, blouse etc. Most importantly, bring a picture of what you want it to look like! The Hoi An tailors are extremely skillful and they can replicate almost anything, almost perfectly! (But have very little patience)
3. Go with a budget
The top tailors offer a plethora of fabrics – high-end wool and silk to synthetic fabrics for cheaper daily clothes, in a variety of colors, textures and patterns. If you don’t have a range ($$) in mind, you’re more likely to get swayed into something way more pricey! (and of course if it’s a wedding dress you’re after – remember (1) above)
4. Leave ample time for fittings
Just like any other tailor in the world, getting the right fit will take many trials and fittings in the shop. Since this is condensed over a couple of days, it means THAT many more trips to the shop to get it right (multiple measurements and tweaks). Give yourself at least 3 days after the initial specification. And don’t be disappointed at the initial fitting, the first try is the worst; but that’s only the shell and your dream dress will take a few more tries to get it perfect!
5. Ask questions and speak up!
This is not the place for the shy and self conscious! Speak up if you don’t think the fit is right in certain places, or if the fabric needs lining etc. Communicate! They will continue to make changes until you’re satisfied – after all, isn’t that why you’re at the custom tailoring shop!?
For a more comprehensive guide, read this awesome post from twotravelaholics that prepared us 🙂
4) gET SOME FRESH FRUIT AT THE Hoi An central MARKET
Get a whiff of the local tastes and smells, and look at the vast variety of tropical fruits at the food market in old town. This also makes for a good snack while you get all the shopping done through the day! (Read more on the walking tour)
5) Shop for souvenirs
How An is going to feel like a shopping destination for beautiful handmade goods at fairly affordable prices. Be prepared to swoon over colors and textures, and an urge to buy everything in sight!
- Clothes and fabric: We already described the textiles and custom tailoring that is most definitely the top most souvenir in Hoi An! Other high-end places for silk clothing and home goods are Metsiko with a gorgeous palette of soft pastel colors in flowing silk, and Gingko with trendy tshirts and clothes inspired by traditional vietnamese patterns.
- Handbags and jewelry: you can find handbags in a variety of colors and designs. Several souvenir shops have some interesting handbags, walk around and bargain for that ideal gift 🙂
- Silk lanterns: One of the symbols of Hoi An and a great gift for your friends! The best time to purchase lanterns is during the night so you can see exactly how they look after lit up! (more on that below)
- Paintings: Most oil and water based pieces here are gorgeous! Shop for photography and oil paintings in stores, and watercolors by the talented artist on the streets.
- Holiday cards: incredible pop-up cards make for whimsical gifts! These are incredible gifts at a fraction of a cost back home.
- Pottery: fine ceramic tea sets and dinnerware inspired by local designs of lotus and pagodas lined with brass on the edges! You must stop at two stores;
Reaching Out run by a Vietnamese couple that employs disabled artisans, and the returns go back into the enterprise to train and employ the artisans. The shop has unique handicrafts that you can only find in this shop! A special place with beautiful products and professional customer service.
Lifestart Foundation Workshop sells products made by a disability co-op in Hoi An. The profits are also returned right back to the artisans and the shop is operated by the foundation. Their products include handbags, vases from chopsticks, and hand painted T-shirts.
6) Feast on the perfect mix of flavors
When in Vietnam, you have to eat the Banh mi. And the BEST banh mi can be found at Banh Mi Phuong, made famous by Anthony Bourdain in 2009. We sampled the sandwich and it definitely lives up to its reputation!
It’s easy to see why white rose dumplings are adored by the locals, and considered a specialty of this town! Known as banh vac in Vietnamese, these are steamed rice flour dumplings stuffed with ground shrimp. But what makes it so popular, are the delicate folds that resemble a flower. This Chinese-influenced dish is usually served on a flat plate with sliced shallots and a vinegary dressing. We sampled these at Miss Ly Cafe 22 along with another treat – Hoi An dumplings that resemble “ravioli” topped with a tomato salsa.
Do not leave Hoi An without sampling the cao lau, a true Hoi An specialty. This includes Fat, chewy, noodles served with slices of fatty pork, beans sprouts, raw greens, crunchy bits of rice crackers and a dark, rich pork broth – almost like a gravy. I had this dish at the Nam Hai restaurant (our hotel) and it was so warming and delish! But the restaurant Morning Glory makes a mean Cao Lau as well!
We also recommend sampling some of the mobile vendors pushing carts, riding bicycles, carrying baskets balanced on yokes, or zipping around on motorbike with a loudspeaker repeating what they offer (if you can understand, that is!). But most of them now have signs in English explaining the item.
7) Enjoy the cafe culture with an iced coffee
The delightful cafes at Hoi An offer incredible coffee varieties including the chilled sweet Vietnamese coffee and Chinese influenced teas.
Cocobox is a newer cafe and a stop here will make you feel good inside and out with its fresh cold-press juice and smoothie combinations from fresh fruits from the Central market. And also a refreshingly cool iced Vietnamese coffee!
Reaching Out Teahouse turned out to be our favorite place here! This teahouse employs speech and hearing impaired servers and is set in an ancient house in the heart of the old quarter.
The place is full of pretty antiques and interesting details that make sipping tea an artful retreat. They offer a selection of loose-leaf tea and different types of coffee, with tasting flights of each. You use one of the little blocks on the table to communicate with the server, and can also write down a question if asking about one of the items on the menu…
The tea, or coffee (Vietnamese coffee pictured below) is served in gorgeous trays!
8) Watch the sunset by the fields
On our way to the Hoi An old quarter (outskirts), we passed the farming area called the Tra Que vegetable village. And one evening we stopped by the farm at sunset to admire the view…green and beautiful fields being ploughed by the water buffalo.
Lots of hotels offer morning (half day) excursions in the village and paddy fields, including a ride in a water buffalo cart (aka. BMW of Hoi An 🙂 ), picking fresh vegetables and a cooking lesson for one of the local Vietnamese dishes.
9) Walk by the River after dark
The old quarter turns magical at night! Colorful lanterns light up the streets, and the river fills up with boats offering evening cruises of the beautiful sight.
The refection of the soft light of the lanterns in the dark water, with floating candles and dotted with fishing nets. Lots of people begin to line up for the boats.
The shops and restaurants from the morning take on a completely different look at night!
Remember those silk lanterns we talked about? Lit up at night, they come alive in all their vivid colors and designs!
10) Make a wish for your next trip!
Walk through the night market, and pick up one last souvenir…the floating lantern
step by the river to admire the stunning view, with the floating candles in colorful cardboard boxes…a tradition of Hoi An.
The Hoi An lantern festival takes place on a full moon night every month, where the town shuts off all the (electric) lights, and people light up paper lanterns to float in the river. However, this lovely tradition has been romanticized so much that it takes place almost every night…where couples come together and buy one of these to make a wish or to give thanks under the stars.
Buy a candle from one of the several vendors on the bridge.
Candles are placed at the bottom of the colorful paper lanterns/boxes. The lantern is then placed on the water with the pole with a hook at the end…
Make a wish to return, or maybe give thanks for an incredible trip, or maybe do both (like us)! And watch it sail away…
Hope you enjoyed reading, ❤