It’s safe to say that our week in Hoi An was the highlight of Vietnam for all of us. Partly because we were staying in an awesome Airbnb house overlooking the river, on Cam Nam island, which was walking distance to the old town. Partly because we met up with James’s cousin and her family and enjoyed a few days/nights out with good company. But mostly because it is such a lovely city to spend time in. James had loved Hoi An on a previous trip to Vietnam, and as we drove in it was a bit concerning to see over-development and high rise hotels along most of the beach front between the airport in Danang and the city of Hoi An.
The old town of Hoi An however, was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1985 which means, thankfully, it has been preserved and protected from development. The buildings date as far back as the 15th century, when Hoi An was an important trading port. Although tourism has boomed, the area still retains its beautiful old charm. The markets lie at the heart of the old town, and of life in Hoi An. A produce market stretches out along the side of the river, a big two-storey indoor market sells shoes, clothes and homewares next to another indoor street food market, buzzing with both tourists and locals. As well as stores selling handicrafts and local art there are many tailors and shoemakers who will whip up made-to-measure apparel within a day or two. I had a pair of leather sandals made and would have been tempted by much more had we had more room in our backpacks!
It was raining on and off for our first few days, but that just made the yellow shade of the buildings and the glow of the lanterns stand out even more. We enjoyed exploring the markets, restaurants and shops and the children did a lantern-making workshop at Lifestart Organisation Workshop, an organisation that provides employment for disadvantaged local women. Hoi An is well known for the pretty lanterns of all shapes and sizes that are strung out across the streets and lit up every night. On the evening of the full moon the river was bustling with boats and floating lights, it was really quite magical despite the crowds.
We booked an outing one morning and were pleasantly surprised to find we were the only ones on the trip! We had a go at paddling the traditional Vietnamese circular basket boats after a ‘gangnam style’ demonstration by the locals. It’s not as easy as it looks to steer the boat without spinning around in circles! Later we were taken to meet Se, a huge and friendly (although a little smelly) water buffalo on whom we all had a turn to ride, both in and out of the water. After spotting so many on our travels it was wonderful to finally meet the workhorse of Vietnam and realise their size and strength. Asides from elephants, that are almost extinct in Vietnam, water buffalo are the country’s largest native mammal. Our guide explained that he had grown up with water buffalo, they are sacred animals and are treated like part of the family. It was a muddy but fun experience for us all, especially for those of us sitting at the back who had the pleasure of being slapped by his soggy tail every few seconds!
The Vietnamese like their coffee, and it was in Hoi An that we discovered egg coffee – a coffee with a sweet, frothy mixture of egg and condensed milk floating on the top. It originated in Hanoi during the mid 1950’s when milk was in short supply. We also discovered some more varieties of tasty Vietnamese food – the local speciality cao lau, which is thick noodle soup with pork. Kaitlyn’s love of ban bao started here – a sweet steamed bread with a pork and quails egg filling and Banh Mi – the best sandwiches ever tasted from Madam Khanh the Banh Mi Queen. Both girls tried everything but Ellie’s firm favourite was freshly made banana pancakes from a street stall. Not only is it cheap, it is delicious. It would take a while to get bored of Vietnamese food.
One of the best ways to explore Hoi An and the surrounding area is by bicycle. Our favourite time in Hoi An was spent when our host lent us bicycles and we went off to explore on our own. Five minutes ride off the main roads we found ourselves on quiet streets along the river where fishermen were fishing from boats or the river bank. We passed trays of freshly made noodles drying in the sun. Another direction led to pathways through rice fields where farmers wearing the iconic conical hats were hard at work in the sun and water buffalo were cooling off in pools of water. One day we cycled to Cua Dai beach – not the most beautiful beach, covered with sand bags – but we enjoyed a few hours there. As we left we were greeted by an unaccompanied herd of cows and watched as they meandered their way past us and down the main road! Another day we cycled down the quiet streets and alleyways of a neighbouring island, discovered a colourful temple and a cemetery for martyrs. It was a great way to observe daily life and we got pretty good at navigating our way around (with the help of google maps) and turning left in traffic!
After a lovely week in Hoi An and lots of good memories made, it was difficult to leave but it was time to see somewhere a little bit different – we were heading for the hills…
To see more of our Hoi An photos, please click here.