Traveling Vietnam- Hoi An

Hoi An

Hoi An translates as “peaceful meeting place”. And indeed, the city’s serenity was captivating as soon as we disembarked from our 45-minute taxi ride from Danang.

History – A UNESCO World Heritage site, the small ancient city of Hoi An sits on the banks of the Thu Bon River and is carved through with canals and quiet tributaries.

Once a busy port, with merchants from China, Japan, and Europe trading between the 15th and 19th centuries, this profoundly dignified city and its people continue their busy lives of generational craftsmanship, cultural and culinary offerings.

The Ancient City abounds with artisan goodies housed in age-old wooden framed shops along narrow cobbled streets and alleyways, reminding me of an ancient maze. The timeworn yellow Japanese merchant and tea houses with curved, tiled rooves and old-world fragility still hold front and center on the river’s East bank. Like old ladies looking somewhat worn but holding their glamour, especially in the evening when passersby can view the old silk lanterns strung along their terraces, throwing dusky hues to reflect and shine on the river waters.

The River – is alive with countless colourful wooden boats that visitors hire a seat on for a serene journey down the waterway. This is a beautiful experience at night when the water takes on an oily tone from the reflections of multitudinous colours cast by the lights and hanging silk lanterns (the symbol of Hoi An) stretching the length of the streets. During the day, strolling beside the river is a lovely, relaxed way to head to the many eateries, bars, and cafes. Or an amble over one of the various bridges that span the waterways.

Eats – Dining in Hoi An is pure pleasure. Farms and fishing boats contribute just-picked vegetables, seafood, herbs, and fruit to the markets daily.  The markets are the Asian version of the Western supermarket but are more plentiful, and of course, the purchaser is guaranteed freshness.

One of our favourite eateries wasEm“. Down a small alleyway perched above the roadway, (despite its narrowness, pedestrians and motorbikes seem to make it work for each other and themselves), is a gorgeous bright plaster building with a quirky French-inspired sensibility. Nghia opened the restaurant to provide delicious homemade meals using the best and tastiest ingredients. He has written a menu to make your mouth water.

Initially, we were keen to try his “Insanely good coffee” as described on his little chalkboard on the street; we are keen coffee drinkers – black and strong with no sugar. Nghia’s own (secret) recipe was good. He was so impressed that we were impressed he gifted us 2 or 3 more coffees of various flavours. All delicious. He even experimented with our taste buds by serving what can only be described as a delightful take on traditional Irish coffee. But decadent and more palatable.

We were so inspired that we stayed for lunch. Nghia devoted about two hours to cooking us the most beautiful array of fusion Vietnamese food with a modern twist.

Nghia trained as a chef after years as “a suit.” His back story is gorgeous, and he has poetically written about it in his menu.

I have written more about Nghia and his restaurant, Em, in a separate story on this website. His life and heart are dedicated to his commitment to serving his customers fresh, mouthwatering Vietnamese dishes with a delicious twist.

It was a unique and special experience for us to meet Nghia and be lucky enough to try his delicious food and coffee(s). Nghia – we felt very honoured to be treated as special guests.

We also discovered more great food close to where we were staying. The delightful Hoi An Food Court, located at No.1 Nguyễn Phúc Chu, An Hội, Hội An, Quảng Nam, in a little back street near the river.

This food court serves the famous white rose dumplings cooked by Mrs. Ha and Mr. Van in two separate kitchens. I had read about the famous Banh Bao Vac, a local specialty – “white rose dumplings ” and about the original recipe which is still owned by the family. The language barrier didn’t allow for clarification on Mrs. Ha or Mr. Vans White Rose Dumpling recipes lineage, but nonetheless we enjoyed several evenings dining here and ordering their moreish White Rose Dumplings.

The dumplings were precisely as described in the book: a Chinese-influenced “steamed” dumpling. A soft white rose petal dumpling case squished up to contain the delicate flavour of minced shrimp, boosted by the fried garlic in an oil dressing. Charmingly served by a lovely older man who may have been Mr. Ha or Mr. Van, but like the recipe’s actual lineage, this will remain one of life’s mysteries because he can’t speak English, and we can’t speak Vietnamese.

To add to the availability of mouth watering meals, every night the streets on either side of the river are lined with lit up food carts crammed together offering a delicious array of choices.

We enjoyed scrumptious freshly BBQed octopus, chargrilled chicken satay, vegetable kebabs, frogs legs skewered and scorched, char grilled corn on the cob and fresh chunks of tropical fruits. And of course the ubiquitous and delicious Banh Mi Hoi An.

And to provide comfort while you dig into your meal, colourful plastic chairs and tables are dotted along the riverside enabling easy outdoor dining, and time to delight in the surrounding streetscapes.

The streets sparkle and shine in various alluring colours from the light of the lamps and hanging lanterns, providing a relaxed, happy vibe. People and their families seemed to enjoy the atmosphere as they strolled along, choosing their meals from a cart or sitting in the street-side bars and restaurants, attracted to the night beauty of the village and river.

Like the streets, the river seethes with life too. Boats are busy providing nighttime sightseeing trips for people. Some buy little candle-lit lanterns to float away down the river in memory of someone special.

During the day -We walked. Across the river, over a wee hump of a bridge, to explore the alleyways and maze-like streets of the “Ancient Town” proper. But before heading off, we indulged in a daily foot massage from a salon directly adjacent to our side of the bridge entrance.

Navigating narrow tipping footpaths, motorbikes, and scooters riding past groups of pedestrians (including us), strolling the tiny road in the seething heat, our walks were a daily chaotic and hot odyssey of discovery. We celebrated every evening, that we had indulged in such an effective antidote to our natural wariness, by pampering our feet. The daily cheap and therapeutic foot massages worked a treat.

Shopping – Local artisans come into the streets to encourage tourists to buy their many beautiful wares . We bought leather bags, baskets, rugs, T-shirts, souvenirs, gifts, books, and jewelry. The shopping in Hoi An Old Town is a veritable Aladdin’s cave of goodies. And because the town is also renowned for cheap tailormade clothing, we had a suitcase full of clothes made to measure as well.

Attractions – Along with the shopping, we enjoyed being amongst the hubbub that marked the beginning of the annual Tet celebrations. Honoured nationally, this festival makes everywhere in Vietnam busy during January and February.

The streets were crowded with Vietnamese preparing for this lovely festival, adding to the very colourful atmosphere. Women and girls were out and about in their elegant national dress, (ao dai). Men were handsome in their variations of red costumes. Everywhere we looked, we saw fun, smiles and laughter.

Outdoors For a change of pace and knowing the beach was nearby, we took the 4 km ride to Cua Dai Beach.

Considered one of the best beaches in Vietnam,it was a glorious array of white sand, blue seas, and green palm trees. The sand stretched under trees, where we found sheltered outdoor bars and dining scattered around. We spent a couple of very restful hours enjoying cold beers and watching the daily lives of locals unfold before us. This is another side to Hoi An and a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the ancient city.

Cycling Pushbikes were available for hire at almost every street corner in Hoi An. We rented a couple early one morning and rode the length of the river and back, stopping for a coffee at a cute little cafe halfway. It was easy riding, as Hoi An is flat. And it made a nice change from being on foot.

But sadly, our five night stay in Hoi An was rapidly coming to an end.

Culture – So we decided, as a treat, and keen to support local arts, to buy tickets to an almost sold-out show of The Vietnamese Bamboo Circus, a performance held in the Hoi An Lune Centre For the Performing Arts. Surrounded by the unique atmosphere of the Ancient Town, this theatre is the first and only bamboo theatre in Vietnam.

No animals are involved. The performers use bamboo props, backed by live singers and music, taking the audience on a journey through Vietnamese culture and history.

It was a riveting, hour-long, breathtaking show of dance, acrobatics, strength, and skill. We were very moved by the stories and admired the cast’s athleticism and wholesome beauty. They shone with goodwill and talent.

Rather than perform an encore on stage where taking photos was not permitted, the cast presented a spontaneous curtain call in the outdoor forecourt. It was an up-close experience, including audience participation, and by being allowed to take photos, we permanently captured the joy and love these artists exuded.

We left the theatre feeling uplifted and privileged to have seen one of the most magnificent live shows ever. What a poignant finale for our last night in Hoi An. Thank you.

MTR footnote – for these post-COVID times. When we left the show, it was raining. The show’s logistics crew ripped open boxes of plastic ponchos and handed them to the departing audience. No charge. A gift with so much goodwill.

If you would like to find out more about Hoi An, please contact

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