Vietnam Travel Diary 3: Hoi An, City of Lanterns

A week in Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the banh mi capital of Vietnam

Any research into top places to visit in Vietnam will leave you with a couple names you probably recognize, such as Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, but one you probably won’t: Hoi An. Hoi An is a colourful town near the coast in central Vietnam, perhaps best known for its well-preserved ancient town and colourful lantern festivals. After hearing rave reviews on Hoi An from folks who had been there, we decided to spend a bit more time in the town. We found Hoi An to a charming, well-kept little city with loads to do. Read on for some highlights!

Lounging at our hotel pool the evening we arrived. The pool, breakfast buffet, and air-conditioning made our week-long stay very comfortable.
Beautiful Hoi An, the city of lanterns.

Our first morning in Hoi An saw us on a walking tour in the heart of the Ancient Town, Hoi An’s historic district and centre of tourism, on the riverfront. This area was established as a renowned international trading port in the 1500’s, and as such, is the confluence of many different cultures, notably, Chinese, Japanese, French, and of course, Vietnamese. These international influences can be seen in everything from decor to lantern styles to traditional foods. Hoi An famously contains many museums, landmarks, and historic houses from its early days, but these are interspersed in a walk-able downtown with a myriad of restaurants, coffee shops, souvenir stores, custom tailor shops, art galleries, and boutique clothing stores. Modern Hoi An, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is very much working to cash in on some tourist bucks. This did not diminish the charm for me however; I really enjoyed the contrast and variety between the traditional markets and street vendors and the modern shops and cafes.

A dragon and carp fish outside a local Chinese temple. As the legend goes, a carp swimming upstream was able to overcome numerous obstacles, and at the end of his journey, was transformed into a dragon (perhaps you recognize this symbolism from the Pokemon franchise?).
Some stonework in a courtyard of one of Hoi An’s oldest houses. The house has been owned by the same family for generations upon generations, and they work painstakingly to maintain it – no small task, as Hoi An floods multiple times a year during its rainy season. Water can often reach halfway up the first floor of houses such as this one!
A lotus pond and elaborate gate.
A typical street in Hoi An, full of plants and lanterns.

It is at night that Hoi An really comes alive – lanterns light up each street, boats and tiny candle boxes fill the river, the daily night market begins, and the many waterfront bars are full of happy hour patrons. The small island across the river from the Ancient Town, An Hoi, is where the party happens, if that’s your thing.

Hoi An is really lovely at night. Lanterns everywhere!
Looking across the bridge to the small island of An Hoi, full of bars, street food vendors, and of course, the night market. Brightly lit boats also line the river.

One of the coolest tours we took was a so-called “ghost tour”, which took us through Hoi An at night to discuss haunted alleys, a cursed city, and death customs. We learned how the south and north of Vietnam differ hugely in their death rites – one side of the country loves a celebration-style funeral with lots of music and some laughter, while the other sees significance in the amount of sad people that turn up to mourn the deceased, and will even employ “professional criers” to attend and bring the mood down. But our favourite ghost-trivia fact of the trip? When entering temples and other important places, there is usually a very high threshold to cross in the doorway, requiring you to lift your feet high to step over. The reason? Ghosts don’t have knees, and so this effectively keeps them out of buildings. Obviously.

Another huge part of the culture of Hoi An is food of course, and Hoi An has several famous regional dishes it proudly flaunts. One in particular, cao lầu, is only available in town, and is a wonderful symbol of the spirit of the city. Cao lầu is a noodle dish that combines multiple different cultures: the thick noodles are a Japanese-inspired version of udon noodles, but they must be made exclusively with water pulled from a specific local well – this gives them a taste that is uniquely Hoi An. Additionally, the dish includes fried pork, which is cooked in a Chinese manner. Another famous food from Hoi An is the French-inspired bahn mi sandwich. While these are available all over Vietnam, Hoi An is apparently the capital of the sandwich, and has some of the best shops you’ll find in the country. Chris and I were able to find the shop reputed to be the best: Bahn Mi Queen. It was jam-packed when we visited, and I can see why. It was amazing. Hoi An is also home to many trendy coffee shops, cocktail bars, and even a craft beer brewery. One of our standard daily activities was picking a coffee shop with comfy chairs and pulling up for a long stay with an ice-cold coconut coffee.

Chris enjoying multiple banh mi’s at the Banh Mi Queen. The fresh fruit juice was also fantastic.
This stunning iced tea was discovered in a local coffee shop and bar – it’s some sort of salted-cream pea-blossom tea latte. It’s the most beautiful drink I’ve ever had.

One of the highlights of Hoi An for us was the Precious Heritage Museum. At first glance online, it simply sounded like an art gallery, but I was convinced to check it out after reading some reviews that noted that this was the best museum in town. It is an absolutely amazing project undertaken by French photographer Réhahn, who, upon traveling to the north of Vietnam to take landscape photos, came to the realization that Vietnam contained dozens of ethnic groups, about which there was little to no documented information. His connection with the people and the cultures led to a decade-long project in which he traveled all over the Vietnamese countryside in an effort to meet and catalogue some small aspects of the culture of each of the 54 ethnic groups, culminating a museum showcasing photos and traditional costumes. Réhahn’s empathy, passion, and artistic eye make this a truly inspiring collection, and Chris and I left full of admiration for the project he had undertaken – a work of breadth, meaning, and wisdom.

A room in the Precious Heritage Museum. Réhahn’s gorgeous, dramatic photos dominate, accompanied by small write-ups on the people and living history of Vietnam’s ethnic groups.
Another typical gallery. Réhahn was gifted a traditional costume by nearly every ethnic group he met. Unfortunately, some villages no longer had a costume, and no was left who remembered how to make them.

If Réhahn’s marvelous museum had left us inspired in the power of clothes, we were able to act on that inspiration in Hoi An, a city famous for its tailor shops. The town has a tailoring history which dates back to the Silk Road days, and that trade is very much alive and well in town. With something like 200 tailor shops, many visitors come to Hoi An specifically to have custom clothes made, as this can be done for a fraction of the cost of western cities. Men’s suits in particular seemed to be big business, with many specialty shops.

Our mission was perhaps a bit more elaborate than most: a suit and a wedding dress. After lots of searching and a half a dozen shop consults, we settled on A Dong Silk, one of the oldest shops in town, specializing in high-end clothing, and with plenty of experience in wedding dresses. We found the experience to be really fun – the wonderful ladies at the shop helped us with design and fabric selection, took our measurements, and then we both turned up the next day to try on completed garments! Several more days of fittings ensued (mostly for my dress!), but we ended up with high-quality, custom pieces for significantly less than we would have paid back home in Canada (a 3-piece suit, shirt, and tie for $230 USD, and a lace wedding dress with hand-sewn details for $420 USD). We had a few extra things made even: some dresses for me, and some more shorts for those hot Asian days. After it was all completed, a man from the post office was summoned to the shop to help us ship our fancy clothes back to Canada. While shipping was a little expensive ($167 CAD for 6 kgs), it was still a deal overall. My favourite moment of the whole experience was this: after boxing up our clothes, the man from the post office perched the box precariously on the back of his scooter, and then zoomed off into the chaotic Vietnamese traffic, our designer clothing in tow!

My new custom shorts!

For those that tire of city views, the ocean is acutally only a short distance away. Chris and I grabbed some bikes from our hotel and took a short ride through rice fields and quiet country side for a day at the beach. We were excited to learn that there is some scuba diving off the Cham Islands adjacent to Hoi An, and a few dive shops in town, but we quickly found out that the dive shops close in October, as this is storm season and the visibility in the water is poor. We still enjoyed the beach however, and stopped by an amazing Canadian-Vietnamese restaurant called Bikini Bottom (Spongebob anyone?) for a fantastic hamburger.

Chris determined to work on his “no hands” bike skills as we cycle through calm rice fields.
The beach! Some pretty big waves hit the shore here.

The final activity we did in Hoi An was a tour of the My Son ruins. This historic site contains the temple ruins of the Champa people, a kingdom that occupied central Vietnam somewhere around the 9th century. The Champa practiced Hinduism, and so the temples have a large Indian influence. Unfortunately, these were largely destroyed by bombs during the American-Vietnamese War, but restoration was started in the 80-90’s with the help of a famous Polish architect, and has continued to the present day. Ironically, the new bricks used during the restoration projects aren’t holding up so well – they look black-green and are crumbling due to exposure to the weather. Someone, the master Cham builders of ancient times were able to figure out how to perfectly place and coat their bricks such that they are in nearly pristine condition to this day. Very impressive.

The My Son Sanctuary site. The mountain in the background resembles Mt Meru, which is considered to be the centre of the universe in Hinduism. Because of this resemblance, the Champa chose to build their temples in this holy valley.
The beautiful brick buildings are partially collapsed due to bomb strikes.
Another temple set in this peaceful and green valley.
My Son contains many structures, all in various states of decay and repair. Many sites are still hidden in the jungles nearby – due to unexploded ordinance leftover from the war, it’s not safe for researchers to explore and restore these sites.

After nearly a week in Hoi An, Chris and I boarded another dreaded night-bus for our ride south. Next stop, Dalat and Ho Chi Minh City!

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