Hoi An was my Vietnamese fairy town. It has been the town of my dreams since Top Gear first visited here on their motorbike tour and it was the first place in Vietnam that I really fell in love with and wanted to stay, for a long, long time. The main industry here is tourism though, so you might find some things more expensive than you expected or you might find people hassling you for cash sometimes, on the whole though it was incredibly peaceful and I was followed down the street by the scent of flowers and the low but enthusiastic babble of chatter.
There’s something almost European about the little town, its Portuguese-looking yellow alleys with swathes of bougainvillea dripping from wooden balconies over the shop fronts at street level. There is a small maze of cobbled streets lined with colourful, colonial style buildings, all leading you towards the wide lazy river; a friend in our group says it reminds him of Havana.
There are many beautiful cafes to choose from, with balconies draped in flowers and often waitresses serving in the serene traditional Vietnamese dress; a long demure tunic with trousers, leggings or a skirt underneath. When you’ve had your fill of delicious clay pot – can I just take a minute to worship the Vietnamese clay pot, it has knocked Pho off the top spot for my favourite food – you can then shop to your heart’s delight. The streets here are stuffed with souvenir shops, shops selling leather goods and the all famous silk tailoring businesses. I wasn’t going to indulge originally and then the shops were so cool and beautiful and my boyfriend was buying a beautiful suit and so I decided to have a dress tailored too. For only £35 I had several fittings for a blue silk dress in a design I showed them on Google and the whole process only took just over 24 hours. You can have almost anything tailored here, if you pop in any of the dress shops they will measure you and whip you up a dress in your style, colour and material (assuming they have it in) for seriously competitive prices; I nearly splurged on a tailored leather jacket too but didn’t have the guts to spend the money in the end.
Besides the daytime shops and the cooking classes available here there is another beautiful world at night too. You can eat some more clay pot, sample the local bars and, yet again, go shopping. Venturing into the lively night market my favourite thing to buy here were cards with beautiful paper cut outs of local scenes, trees and buildings, they are inexpensive and easy to carry home and I felt like they had the essence of everything I enjoyed about Vietnam; they are peaceful, intricate and colourful. Had I had the space I would also have bought some lanterns – there is almost more light here at night than during the day, glowing from street art installations, fairy lights and lanterns, the stalls selling the lanterns seem to float on their own multi coloured glow. And of course there is the obligatory smattering of street food, from ice cream carts, to fruit trolleys to deep fried shrimp in batter. When I crossed the river, watching people float along it peacefully or it in floating restaurants, I stopped and indulged in my romantic fantasy. Lowering a flower lantern, bought from some local ladies on the bridge, into the dark river with a bamboo cane was something I had been dreaming about for years. It was a magical moment although, admittedly it was hotter and sweatier than I had imagined and the bridge was packed with people; one thing you need to know about Hoi An is that it’s incredibly popular so don’t expect to have this beautiful little town to yourself.
One thing you’re encouraged to buy here is the ‘City Ticket’, we were cajoled by our tour guide with a casual “this is your donation to the local industry”. This is a multi attraction ticket, allowing you entry into either five or maybe eight (I’ve forgotten) of the city’s main attractions for a period of 24 hours. You can definitely get to all of them in that time, which is good, although ours didn’t have a date stamp so I don’t know how they would have policed it. I don’t resent giving the money really, however I wouldn’t buy it again, if you do buy it, make sure you drag yourself round to everything to make it worth it. We went inside the Chinese centre, which has some fountains, alters and strange but colourful Chinese dragon statues and we looked at the Covered Bridge but there was no need to even go across, it looks prettiest from a distance. We also kept meaning to go into a historical complex with a temple, but we kept forgetting to be covered up enough so in the end we gave it a miss.
One activity I can thoroughly recommend though is a bike ride down to the nearby beach, I don’t know the name but anyone in town will be able to point you to the beach, I think it’s the one without all the posh resorts on but I can’t be sure. We hired bikes from the hotel and, although cycling is just about my least favourite activity ever, we brave the Vietnamese roads to cycle down to the beach. It’s a beautiful flat ride down with gorgeous views as you – everywhere in this country is a gorgeous view – and it’s definitely well-used by tourists and locals as a cycle route. After maybe two miles we paid a small amount to lock our bikes up under shelter and head onto the sands on foot. The beach didn’t disappoint; we lounged on sun beds, sipping beer, watching the coracle boats pop in and out of the water and the children splash around by the shoreline. The beach is long with soft white sand, a calm sea and the countryside spilling right over onto the top of the beach. It seemed very local and peaceful and I felt extremely blissful just watching the horizon to the tune of people joking and laughing and barbecue-ing in Vietnamese.
Have you ever been to Hoi An? Do you remember the Top Gear episode I’m on about? Let me know! If you want to read more about Vietnam, find out about my stay in the Mekong Delta or check back to my travels in Cambodia.