Hoi An is a magical place. UNESCO and the world has left its footprint there, painting culture up the walls and bringing all kinds of people together. The iconic lanterns light up the streets, but also see bold Chinese conference rooms, traces of old trade and escape to the beach.
Old Town Sights
Every building in the old town is beautifully well old. Between those however, are some particularly important sights, that have been preserved well, and mark different points in the towns complex history. Buy a ticket from one of the many stands, for entry into five. There are conference rooms, old houses, museums and special things like the Japanese bridge. Not all of them are open at the scheduled time and not all of them you can find, but hey, this is South East Asia. I loved them all for different reasons, although the Hoi An museum on the edge of the old town isn’t much.
Like the world craving to eat Vietnamese food, there’s a craving to cook it too. All over Vietnam there are cooking schools offering different dishes, styles, locations, lengths and prices. The food in the north and south, like everything else, varies greatly, and so we decided to do our cooking class in the middle. Hoi An has most of the national dishes, with a few of its own, like Bun Xeo and Cau Lau.
Our day started in the market, where we were given traditional hats and a basket, to collect our ingredients. The meat counter was an experience. Unlike home, the meats are out in the open, on cardboard covered tables, with flies free to roam. It screams don’t eat it, but of course, it’s completely fine. Next off to the kitchen. Ours included a boat trip, first through Thu Bon River, and then on a paddle boat through Coconut Village (so called because of the coconut leaves that create a jungle in the water). It was gorgeous and serene, perfect before the heat of the kitchen. If you can get a cooking school that’s out of town, on a farm or similar then do. It makes the day more of an adventure, and the rural setting is soul filling.
Our group consisting of the two of us, an Australian woman and an older German couple. We were then introduced to our ‘master chef’ called Thy. With her loving yet meticulous eye on us, we cooked fresh spring rolls, with sauce, then made a beef stock for our soup later. The Bun Xeo was next. As I understood it, Bun means rice and Xeo means pancake. It’s a pancake made with rice milk as the batter and prawn as the flavouring. A Hoi An speciality, it is up there with Bun Thit Nuong as my favourite Vietnamese food. We made that next. This one is a cold rice noodle salad, which sounds odd but has incomparable flavours and sensations. Finally, we made the beef noodle soup. This is the staple for all Vietnamese people, often had at breakfast, and does what is says on the tin.
The cooking school was fantastic, especially with the waterways in front of us and chickens at our feet. Vietnamese cuisine isn’t famous for nothing.
Most people don’t know Hoi An has a beach, and of the masses that come here, few visit. It’s around 10minutes from the old town in a car, but where’s the fun in that. We borrowed some bikes from our hostel and cycled over. It’s one road and fairly straightforward, with the extra bonus of some countryside views complete with buffalo and sunset. Be warned, there’s no entry to vehicles on the beach, so be prepared to pay a parking fee in one of the shops on the side. Alternatively, you can get a taxi over but it’ll be dearer that way.
The beach itself is surprisingly lovely. It stretches an eye straining distance, showing off wide flat sand and open sea. It lashes the shore with fierce waves, so we spent our time waiting for that smooth high crest, bracing against the current and riding them in surfer-style. It’s not as good without a board but it’s still addictive and exhilarating. Drying off, we got mango and nuts from one of the friendly women trading along the sand. Of course, it was the best mango, beautiful weather and a great beach.
Drench yourself in the force of the sea, sweat it out on the sand or have a beer in the shade. Hoi An beach is somewhere I highly recommend, a fresh break from sticky sight seeing.
Floating candles dot the water, music everywhere, the smell of mysterious food comes like smoke through your senses, children giggle from a window above somewhere, people sway and dip and bob, the heat from the now gone sun plumes up from the ground and lanterns sprinkle the walls and street like a mural that rises up to paint the sky above. Old town Hoi An comes alive at night. The ancient town is a show of the people and history that came there, each leaving their mark and trade. For over a hundred years, the towns waterways were closed and it was closed off from modern trade. What remains is the old ways preserved in a perfect mix, giving it its UNESCO world heritage sight title. Apart from take it all in, a couple of must dos are; eat a Mango cake (nuts not mango?) and have a 5,000 dong beer over the on the riverfront in An Hoi.
**An Hoi is the real name for the area across the river, but for ease its collectively called Hoi An**
When we arrived in Hoi An, it was 5:30am and check in time was 2pm. At the time, most forefingers are asleep, but the locals are in full swing. We got to the waterfront just before seven o’clock, in time to see the markets opening. Chickens brought in from farms early that morning, are in their cages alive and kicking, honey next, which comes in combs or bottles, then going inside, there’s the fresh fish and seafood. From here, you can see the herbs and vegetables that make up so much of the Vietnamese flavouring, they sit in mountains of green, mysterious and inviting. The fruits are colourful and plentiful, making a great early morning snack too. You can also find noodle stalls, meat counters, baskets, brooms, hats, and further down souvenirs like t-shirts and key rings. If you have the will power, get up and see it for yourself. The market felt like the Vietnamese Hoi An, and was nicer than most I’ve been to.
If you’re in Vietnam, you’ll doubtlessly have Hoi An on your itinerary. Go to the wonderful town of lanterns and little yellow houses, but take a little time to see beyond that and you will be rewarded…