Of all the places I’ve visited in Southeast Asia, Hoi An, Vietnam is my favorite. Great swaths of hot pink bougainvillea blanket sunny yellow shop houses, which sit along dusty roads dotted with temples. The old town’s many coffee shops and chic boutiques hint at the bygone French colonial era. UNESCO has recognized the historic trading port for its well-preserved architecture which reflects both Vietnamese and foreign influences. But Hoi An is perhaps most famous for its riotously colorful lantern festival, which occurs every month on the full moon. I spent three days in Hoi An and could happily have stayed a week.
Things To Do
Hoi An’s ancient town is clustered along the palm tree-lined Thu Bon River. Tourists must purchase a ticket to enter the town, with the fees going towards preservation efforts. The ticket option I chose included entrance to five attractions and was valid for three days. Guards will randomly check for tickets so don’t try to sneak by without one.
The Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese is the most impressive of all the main sights. It was first built in the 17th century as a gathering place for Fujian immigrants, but has evolved into a temple dedicated to their sea goddess and protector.
Vibrantly painted doors make the smaller Quan Cong Temple easy to find. This small 17th century temple is dedicated to an ancient Chinese general. The interior features an homage to the general’s horse and an abundance of gold paint.
The Japanese Covered Bridge straddles a canal near the main old town entrance and is the symbol of Hoi An. Japanese traders built the bridge in the 1590s to link their community to the Chinese on the opposite side. The arched wooded span is in remarkably good shape considering its age. It is free to cross, though the tiny temple inside requires a ticket.
One of the most satisfying things to do in Hoi An is to have clothes made. The town is overflowing with options so it can be intimidating to choose. I asked my hotel for a recommendation and they directed me to Tuong Tailor. A shop assistant had me flip through several catalogs until I found the right style. Then I got to browse through stacks and stacks of fabrics which was the best part of the whole experience. My finished dress was ready the next day! You should allow several days for this process in case alterations are needed.
Reaching Out Arts and Crafts is the best place to shop in Hoi An. The organization trains people with disabilities to make handicrafts. Their work is exquisite, and includes everything from pottery and fabric lanterns to jewelry and accessories. Every piece in the store is handmade, unique, and very reasonably priced.
Although the Hoi An Lantern Festival technically happens every month on the full moon, the best time to experience it is during Lunar New Year and the Mid-Autumn Festival. My visit coincided with the latter, which falls in September or October depending on the year.
Chinese and Vietnamese people celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival as a way to honor the fall harvest. It is the second most important holiday after the Lunar New Year. The Vietnamese ring in the Mid-Autumn Festival with family reunions, ancestor worship, lion dances, and lighted lanterns. Hoi An has seized on the lantern aspect and run with it to dazzling effect. The town lights so many it can probably be seen from space!
What To Eat and Drink
Madam Khanh – The Banh Mi Queen is the winner of my unofficial taste test of Hoi An’s banh mi joints. These French-Vietnamese baguettes are stuffed with pate, roasted meats, and farm fresh veggies. But it’s the spicy sauce that sets Madam Khanh’s sandwiches apart. I also appreciate the addition of slabs of creamy cheese, though purists might scoff at this.
Anthony Bourdain put Banh Mi Phuong on the map when he declared their sandwiches to be the best in the world. I hate to disagree with a legend, but I thought they lacked the flavor Madam Khanh packs into hers. But clearly Banh Mi Phuong is doing something right, considering there’s still a constant queue nearly a decade after Bourdain’s episode aired.
Nu Eatery has the best pork buns I’ve ever tasted. The pillowy buns are filled with tender slices of pork belly, pickles, and spicy mayo, and are so delicious I went back for a second order. Other winning dishes include a grilled pineapple and watermelon salad and sesame chicken stir fry. Be sure to finish with a refreshing cup of lemongrass ice cream!
Morning Glory has been serving up specialties of the central Vietnam coast since 2006. I especially enjoyed the shrimp mousse grilled on sticks of sugarcane and fried shrimp pancakes. Morning Glory is moderately priced for a restaurant located in a historic building smack in the middle of the ancient town.
Red Snapper is a terrific spot to indulge in an evening cocktail. At the time of my visit, there was a happy hour special on ice bucket-sized mojitos. These are perfect for sharing as you watch the action of the busy waterfront through a lantern rainbow on the balcony. (Note: I did not try Red Snapper’s food.)
Where to Stay
I called the Lantana Boutique Hotel home during my stay in Hoi An. Every member of the staff greeted me by name and was so kind that I was genuinely sad to say goodbye when it was time to leave. My lovely room had a balcony overlooking the river, and the housekeepers arranged the towels into whimsical animal shapes. The hotel’s well-shaded pool was the perfect place to take a rejuvenating dip, and surprisingly, I usually had it all to myself.
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