The World Heritage city of Hoi An is far from a relic. This living, breathing city spoils, surprises and seduces the hedonist in you.
Words: Beverly Rodrigues Photography: Adam Lee
The ancient city of Hoi An in Quang Nam Province on the South Central coast of Vietnam may be famous as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but a visit here does not necessarily entail hours spent pretending to be interested in crusty old buildings. I must admit when I first heard I was to visit this city, I imagined trailing behind a guide pointing out architectural details in old assembly halls, explaining the history behind the dusty artefacts there.
Hoi An was once a famous trading port in Southeast Asia. It thrived from the 15th century till the end of the 18th century when Da Nang took over as the new centre for trade, leaving Hoi An to fall into a deep slumber that’d span centuries.
But, when I arrived at this charming little city, I was pleasantly surprised. The declaration of Hoi An as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999 has revitalised this sleepy city, and today, it is one of the best preserved examples of a Southeast Asian trading port, and tourist dollars are pouring in. Its quaint shop houses set out in neat little rows along the Hoai River, offer an alluring blend of the old and new. While some spill with funky fashion and artwork, others have been converted into trendy cafés, restaurants and bars – all begging to be explored.
Whether you’re after a cultural escape, tantalizing Vietnamese cuisine or just a spot of retail therapy, Hoi An has enough to keep you coming back for more.
Hoi An is full of atmospheric dining venues and one of my favourite spots is a lovely restaurant called Morning Glory. This restaurant serves up some of the best Vietnamese cuisine in town, and also lets guests in on invaluable kitchen secrets through its comprehensive cooking classes – a great experience for travellers who’re keen on learning about the local food culture.
I was extremely impressed by how easy and enjoyable the process was. Guided by the restaurant’s vivacious third generation chef and founder, Trinh Diem Vy, my class made shrimp mousse-filled cabbage leaf parcels in a wonderfully light vegetable broth, seared fillets of mackerel in a rich caramel sauce, and sautéed crunchy morning glory leaves with garlic. By far the best dish we cooked was the light and flavoursome salad tossed with Vietnamese pickled cucumber, mint, chilli, roasted peanuts and the requisite splash of fish sauce.
Though there were over 12 of us in the class, it couldn’t have run more smoothly. Everything was arranged neatly, and assistants whizzed around clearing saucepans, whisking away our cooked dishes, and setting out fresh ingredients for our next course. I only experienced mild confusion when the teacher instructed the class to pour ‘penis’ oil into our pan! To my relief, it turned out to be harmless peanut oil! Overall, the class, which was conducted in English, was easy to follow, and a fun learning experience.
Tailor-made & trendy
Shopping in Hoi An is inevitable. No matter how great your resolve, you’ll end up ripping open your wallet, and regretting not having brought enough Vietnamese Dong! Tailoring is big business here with streets lined with boutiques showcasing cocktail dresses going for only USD20 to USD35. Elegant tuxedoes with silk lining cost just around USD100.
I’d barely made it past the first row of shops, when I spotted a turquoise chiffon dress draped elegantly on a mannequin. Popping into the boutique, I was told that the dress could be produced in any colour I desired – long or short, with or without straps – basically, any way I wanted. As if by magic, a colour palette materialised and as I browsed the myriad shades available, a measuring tape snaked over my waist, subtly taking my measurements. The process was ridiculously fast, and before I knew it, I’d ordered three cocktail dresses. All three were to be delivered to my hotel room the following afternoon at 12.00pm.
The next day on the dot, the tailor’s assistant arrived with my dresses, and I was pleased to note that the tailoring was neat, and the fi t, perfect. Had my dresses required minor alterations, they would have been done in just a matter of hours. I was over the moon to have found a reliable tailor who was able to reproduce any design to my exact measurements in a short period of time.
However, it must be said that not all the tailors in Hoi An offer the same exemplary service. The streets are lined with hundreds of boutiques offering tailor-made dresses, so it can be tricky. So, a few tips for those interested in tailor-made goods: Test the tailor; don’t get over-excited and place orders for a whole new wardrobe before checking on workmanship and reliability. Be sure to obtain the tailor’s business card and mobile number, and agree on time and method of delivery. Lastly, only pay in full once you are satisfied.
For art lovers, Hoi An offers a wealth of beautiful artwork, and undoubtedly one of its most stunning offerings is its handmade embroidery. Requiring millions of intricate stitches so fi ne a normal person would surely go blind attempting them, these masterpieces are labours of intense focus and precision yet possess a depth and fluidity that bring each rural landscape and portrait to life. Some appear almost three dimensional!
At XQ Viet Nam Hand Embroidery in Hoi An (23, Nguyen Thai Hoc; +84 05103911872), embroiderers from the Dalat highlands create shimmering canvases swimming with natural silk or cotton. Here, you can watch the entire process from the design and stencil stage to the actual embroidery.
For a whole range of art forms under one roof, check out Thong Loi Fine Arts-Handicraft Company ( 92, Phan Chu Trinh; +840510 3864610). Not only will you be able to observe how they breed silkworms and spin silk here, you’ll also be treated to mat weaving, lantern-making and woodcarving demonstrations. Among the goodies to be purchased here are traditional garments, lanterns, hand-embroidered pictures and elaborate wood carvings.
At Reaching Out (103, Nguyen Thai Hoc Street; 84 0510 3910168), you’ll find fair trade products of extremely high quality. Reaching Out trains and works with disabled craftspeople throughout Vietnam, with each artisan making approximately 35 percent more than other producers of the same product. By working with artisans who reside in remote areas, speak limited English or are illiterate and live with disabilities, Reaching Out protects these artistes from exploitation by middlemen. Fair trade products here include clothing and accessories, jewellery, ceramics, lacquer ware, stationary, toys and embroidery.
Vietnam is also known for its exquisite lacquer paintings. This art form can be traced as far back as the fourth century BC, with lacquered items discovered in ancient tombs. Over the centuries, master craftsmen have refined their art form and added creative materials to the mix. Today, lacquer paintings derive their brilliance from layers of mother of pearl, crushed egg shells, gold leaf and silver dust. In Hoi An, lacquer paintings spill out of art galleries onto the streets, so, you won’t find it difficult to get your hands on these coveted souvenirs. Good places to check out include Hung Long Art Gallery ( 105 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street; +84 0510 3861 524) known for its fine lacquer works by artist Nguyen Trung Viet and Linh Hai Gallery ( 57-76 Tran Phu; +84 0510 861 743) for its high quality lacquer ware and oil paintings.
Possibly one of the loveliest things about Hoi An is the ancient town’s observance of the full moon festival every month. As dusk falls, the town closes its streets to motorised vehicles, and the little lanes are lit with beautiful silk and paper lanterns. Locals congregate near the riverbanks to place lotus-shaped votive on the water. This is said to bring love, luck and happiness. You can watch the magical scene unfold from the riverbank or hop on a river boat for a cruise down the candlelit waterway. This just costs about 100,000 Vietnamese Dong (approximately USD5)!
Amid the gentle chaos of shoppers haggling over multi-coloured silk lanterns and souvenirs at the local market, you’ll spot locals playing Chinese chess by candlelight, performing traditional music, reading poetry in groups and enjoying colourful opera performances in this achingly beautiful city.
The local currency is Vietnam Dong (VND) but US Dollars are widely accepted. Be sure to bring ample US Dollars, as not all currencies are accepted. Street; +84 0510 3861 524) known for its fine lacquer works by artist Nguyen Trung Viet and Linh Hai Gallery (57-76 Tran Phu; +84 0510 861 743) for its high quality lacquer ware and oil paintings.
DAY TRIPPING AROUND HOI AN
- Hoi An Motorbike Adventures takes you off the beaten track to explore the ‘real’ Vietnam. Choose from a Soviet-era Minsk, which is a classic dirt bike or fully automatic modern scooter for the less experienced. There’s even the option of riding pillion! www.motorbiketours-hoian.com
- Cham Island Diving Center in Hoi An offers daily boat and speedboat tours for diving and snorkelling excursions. www.chamislanddiving.com
- My Son, just 55kms from Hoi An, is a temple complex constructed by the Champa kingdom between the 7th and 13th centuries. This UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the Champa kingdom’s most important historical relics.
- China Beach or My Khe in the nearby coastal city of Da Nang is a popular backpacker spot that offers beautiful stretches of beach.
- The Marble Mountains are five mountains and limestone hills in Ngu Hanh Son, each named after an element – metal, water, wood, fi re and earth. Buddhist sanctuaries are scattered throughout the mountains, making this a popular tourist spot.
MUST TRY IN HOI AN!
A must-try in Vietnam is iced coffee or ca phe da. This rich and fragrant indulgence is worth every guilty twinge. Brewed in a small filter called phin, which sits on top of a glass, it is served alongside a glass of crushed ice, and topped with sweetened condensed milk.
EATING AROUND HOI AN
- Morning Glory offers guided street food tours, herb garden cycling tours, market tours, cooking classes and, gourmet classes for professionals or more experienced cooks. Prices range from USD25 to USD55 per person. MORNING GLORY, 106 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, Hoi An +84 0510 2241 556 www.restaurant-hoian.com
- Hai Café serves up traditional Hoi An dishes and grilled seafood. Guests can choose to dine in a relaxed indoor area or breezy courtyard. Evening cooking classes here teach students specialties like spring rolls, beef salad and grilled fish in banana leaves. HAI CAFÉ, BAR & GRILL, 98 Nguyen Thai Hoc St & 111 Tran Phu St, Hoi An +84 0510 3863210 www.visithoian.com