|Ancient town Hoi An from the other side of the Thu Bon river
To get to Hoi An, there are a number of transportation options to choose from based on personal preference. My friend and I travelled by air to Da Nang, then rode a motorbike to Hoi An, located in neighboring province Quang Nam. With increasing travel demand during summertime, we had our plane tickets and accommodation booked one month in advance as they tend to be cheaper. Also, try to pack as light as possible and weigh your luggage to ensure it doesn’t exceed the weight limit. As for accommodation, you can make bookings on vacation websites (Agoda, Airbnb, Traveloka, etc.) and go with the best deal. If there’s a discount, do pay attention to how long it’s applied for so you don’t have to pay additional charges (FYI, we had to pay double the price).
|Amble around and be ready to get lost in the town’s beauty.
Walking or cycling is ideal for sightseeing in Hoi An at your own pace. You can easily rent a bike for 30,000 dong per day. However, if you want to explore outside the neighborhood, motorbikes are highly-recommended with a rental charge of 120,000 – 150,000 dong per day.
After a one-hour motorbike ride, we arrived at the brightly-colored ancient town on an empty stomach and decided to try a Hoianian breakfast. The Hanoians take pride in the world-renowned phở bò (beef noodles soup), the Hue people have bún bò Huế (Hue beef noodles soup), and mì Quảng (Quang noodles) is also a must-try here in Hoi An. The specialty includes ingredients like rice noodles, meat, and herbs, and is often served with a small amount of broth. Also, there are different versions such as Quang noodles with chicken, pork, or frog meat, and the price ranges between 30,000 and 40,000 dong. We went with chicken and it was so good that we had to ask the owner, Mr. Vo Thanh Tuan, for the recipe.
“Quang noodles is a traditional Quang Nam dish. It really depends on the cook. We have the chicken marinated, then cooked. Add some onion, garlic and season it properly. You should boil the chicken a little longer so it can soften and smells better.”
|Must-try Quang noodles (left) and Hue beef noodles soup (right)
The noodle itself is made from rice flour, and we’ve come to notice how versatile this basic ingredient can be. It is a staple in Hoi An’s local cuisine and is included in other iconic dishes like bánh bèo or cao lầu. From the town, go to the other side of Cam Nam bridge and you’ll see a local-favorite hole in the wall on your left, serving a variety of traditional rice-based cakes: bánh bèo (water fern cake), bánh đập (crushed cake) or bánh cuốn (rolled sheets) at a fairly cheap price (5,000 – 15,000 dong). Shop owner Nguyen Thi Hoa has been making and selling these for years.
“The basic ingredient is rice flour. The highlight of bánh bèo is the fish sauce and the dipping sauce. The same goes for bánh đập. The dipping sauce is the defining factor.”
|For first-time tryers, Ms. Hoa gives a brief instruction on how to cut these water fern cakes.
We headed back to explore the ancient quarter. The best way to do this is ambling around or riding on a cycle rickshaw. If you prefer a panorama of the town, “92 Station Restaurant and Café” has one of the highest viewpoints that won’t let you down. Prices range between 45,000 – 50,000 per drink.
|Breathtaking view of the town from above
The trip had been quite relaxing, so we decided to jump on our bike and do something new. About 3km from the town is Thanh Ha Pottery Village, one of the oldest pottery villages in Vietnam.
|Thanh Ha Pottery Village – a living museum of ceramics
“Thanh Ha Pottery Village has been in business for a long time, more than 500 years. In the past, it mainly catered to the production of bricks, tiles, jars, big things you know. For the past 21 years, the village is redirected for tourism purpose. There are some traditional manufacturing areas as well.”
That’s what craftsman My Linh shared about the craft village. You can tour around Xuan My Temple relic and take home your own pottery products for an entrance fee of 35,000 dong per person. Thanh Ha Terracotta Park has ceramic miniatures of famous landmarks and sculptures and is also worth checking out. The entrance ticket, however, is separate from the ticket to the village. If you only want to make pottery, there are several private shops that offer the experience and you won’t have to pay the entrance fee. Each piece you make costs 20,000 dong, whether it’s a mug, a bowl, or a plate. Linh continued,
“We buy the soil and process it carefully ‘cause this type of soil needs careful treatment in order to make it to the final stage. They take the soil from the rice field, and I buy it from them. These days, the soil is a bit depleted because of over-exploitation. Then I start molding. I would have picture the finished product in my mind, a jar, or a cup, then mold it. Then I dry and decorate it.”
|Get your hands dirty and be creative!
We made our own cup, though we’re not sure if it looks like one. Please note that all products intended for the pottery-making experience are decoration only. Visitors can also purchase handmade pieces like piggy banks or tò he (whistling toy figurine in the form of 12 zodiac animals). We rode back to town just in time for lunch, and found a food stall that sells the most iconic Hoi An dish.
Cao lầu is a mixture of thịt xá xíu (char siu-style pork), leafy greens and noodles, but what sets it apart from other noodle dishes is the noodle itself. Street vendor Tran Thi Ngoc Hanh explained,
“The rice noodles are made from rice soaked in lye water. The lye should be made by leaching the ashes of certain plants, and the water used in the process should be taken from the Bá Lễ well, which is complete different from other kinds of noodles. It’s a Hoi An's specialty which is rarely found elsewhere.”
|Cao lầu - The quintessential Hoianian dish
Legend has it cao lầu (meaning “high storey” in English) was often served on higher floors in restaurants so merchants and market traders at the one-time international port could keep an eye on their merchandise. Now, cao lầu can be found on every corner of the street for 35,000 – 40,000 dong. We highly recommend you try it with soya milk, they complement each other so well!
Another highlight of Hoianian cuisine is bánh mì. Ranked No. 89 out of 915 restaurants in the city on the online travel website Tripadvisor and hailed as the best bánh mì shop, “Madam Khánh: The Banh Mi Queen” is definitely a must-try. Serving different versions of bánh mì at a price of 35,000 dong on average, the shop has captured tourists’ hearts,
“This is probably my 3rd or 4th visit. Every year I come to Hoi An, I would stop by this bánh mì shop. It’s always very tasty. A 9 out of 10 for this one, the taste suits me well.”
“It’s been nice. We’ve been here 3 times now. This is our favorite place. We got recommended it by our motorbike rental person and yeah, very tasty. They didn’t have what we want today, ‘cause they run out, but it was still good. Very nice.”
|The Banh my Queen indeed!
“Madam Khánh” has been in business for over 30 years. According to the shop owner, Ms. Yen, most of the ingredients are home-made to bring out the fresh taste of each bánh mì. She continued,
“The best-seller here is the mixed bánh mì. We buy bread from the makers. According to many customers, the most special ingredients here are the paste and meat sauce. They taste very nice. There’s also broth made from the char siu meat, we’ll then season everything. Our mayonnaise is made from egg yolks. We’ll drizzle it over a little, it smells great.”
We biked around for a while then arrived at a special place that we had always wanted to check out. Located amidst the busy town, “Reaching Out Teahouse” is a silent retreat where the beauty of quietness is very much appreciated. This is a teahouse where all employees are deaf or have hearing loss. Customers can communicate with the waiters by writing down or holding the given signs like “Thank You”, “Question”, or “Bill”. A silent coffee shop is not something we see every day, so we didn’t talk much, just enjoyed our drinks and stayed present.
|Keep calm and ...drink tea
You can also visit other places of interest in the vicinity like The Japanese Covered Bridge or Tan Ky Old House. Please note that all cultural museums, assembly halls, and communal houses and temples within the town are included in the entrance ticket and you can buy it at the Old Town Ticket Office.
|The Japanese Covered Bridge – A cultural symbol of Hoi An
At sunset, we joined the irresistible night market – a shopping paradise with various traditional handicraft products, souvenirs, street foods, etc. Each stall lit incense and the scent filled the street. Local vendor Ms. Hoa explained,
“The vendors and traders at the night market usually start by burning incense to pray for fortune, ask for the land’s permission, so hopefully it can bring more customers to us.”
|Ms. Hoa and Her Mobile Stall at the Night Market
When night falls, colorful lanterns illuminate the whole town. If you stroll around the ancient town and take pictures, chances are you’ll capture the sight of lanterns - the city’s cultural symbol. Hoi An Lantern Full Moon Festival is held on the 14th day of each lunar month and coincidentally, we visited the city on the 14th day of the 7th lunar month - the month of the Vu Lan festival. Ms. Hoa clarified,
“Lanterns were the main source of lighting while electrical lighting was limited. And especially during the Lantern festival tonight, you can make a wish for yourself, for your parents. This month is also the Parents’ Month. Another Hoi An ‘specialty’ is singing bài chòi, you should come here tonight. Thís is a very meaningful time to visit Hoi An.”
|Tourists enjoy their late boat ride along the Hoai River.
The whole town celebrated with the highlight being hundreds of flower garlands and coloured lanterns floating down the Thu Bon river. Each lantern costs 10.000 dong. As for the boat ride, there are two types of boat: the small ones take you around the river for 20 minutes while the large ones go to the newly-formed Hoi An Memories Land. The price is between 150,000 – 200,000 dong for a group of 1-3 persons.
|Ancient town Hoi An sparkles in the night.
The trip came to an end, yet the deep impression Hoi An and its people left upon us remains. The exquisite scenery, the friendliness, the cuisine. We fell for this city completely, and we’re not the only ones.
Here are some sharing from several visitors:
“I haven't been to Hoi An for a while now because of the pandemic. I used to visit the city quite often and I really liked it. Now I’m here after the pandemic, not for any business, just because I missed it.”
“We know that up north, no one speaks English, so we find it hard to communicate with people, even on a translation app, they still don’t understand that, so we have lot of difficulty doing normal day-to-day things. Down here, it’s not been too bad. People have been friendly down here and are more willing to talk.”
“Hoi An is a beautiful city, the best city I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Hoi An is one of the most nicest cities in Vietnam. I’ve been to more than 20 countries in my whole life, but Hoi An is the nicest city I’ve seen in my whole life. It’s very nice and ancient and I’ve never seen a nicer city in my whole life.”