The old port town of Hoi An in Central Vietnam is celebrated for its bright, yellow old town and the colourful lanterns that decorate almost every building in the town. I’d heard Hoi An compared to Luang Prabang, Laos which I absolutely fell in love with during our time there last year for its amazing food and chilled out vibe. I’d also heard that the food in Hoi An is something to experience and so this just sounded like a recipe for a perfect destination for me. So did it live up to expectations? Well, here’s what we got up to.
Hoi An Old Town
The Old Town in Hoi An is lined with iconic yellow buildings and is beautiful to walk around. It becomes pedestrianised twice a day which means that you’re not having to watch out for motorbikes, but cycles are still permitted and it does get very busy with tours during these hours. We found the best time for us to be first thing in the morning when it’s a bit quieter. In order to walk around the Hoi An Old Town you actually have to buy a ticket at one of the five-or-so ticket offices scattered around the town. The ticket allows entry into five of the Old Town historical sites and you can use the same ticket for your whole stay in Hoi An.
We saw the Japanese covered Bridge or the Cau Chua Pagoda from the outside so we didn’t need to use up a ticket to make the most of it. We also visited the Hoi An Museum which was interesting as it covered archeological findings from the area as well as the history of Hoi An as a port town, and of course the impact of war on the area as well. Tan Ky house was a beautifully preserved merchant’s house that was worth a look around and the Cantonese assembly hall was really beautiful too. My favourite sites in the old town though were the Phuc Kiên Assembly Hall and the Duc An merchant house. We visited Phuc Kien Assembly Hall as it was opening so it was quiet and tranquil to walk around and we could soak up the ornate gates and beauty of the setting in a bit of peace. Duc An House is similar to Tan Ky but felt even more decadent and well preserved.
As we left Duc An House we noticed a beautiful tea room next door. Reaching Out Tea House is run by speech and hearing impaired staff, so communication is in silence using sign language if you know it or they have helpful blocks on the table that you can use too. It was a lovely calm oasis away from the crowds and the tea selection was fantastic. I opted for a cold Vietnamese green tea, and Mark had an oolong, and we sat and enjoyed some quiet time. The staff told us about their craft wares shop just around the corner so we headed there afterwards to look around. The products are all made by the local community, and particularly those with disabilities and they really are beautiful. Both the Tea House and the Arts & Crafts Shop are well worth visiting.
Night Market & Lanterns
From my research for this trip and accounts from friends, lanterns seem almost synonymous with Hoi An and I loved how almost every building had strings and strings of lanterns in all the different colours. Walking along the streets in the evening was spectacular and I couldn’t help but feel warmed by all the colours. There were a few stalls in the night market that sell the lanterns and the stalls themselves were beautifully decorated and lit up. It was a bit of an Instagram magnet with everybody taking pictures and selfies in front of them (some of them charge for this), but it was easy enough to get through to look at them and we ended up buying two white ones for our living room.
An Bang Beach
We took the shuttle bus one morning from our hotel up to An Bang beach for some relaxation time. The sea was perfect for swimming to get a break from the heat, and the beach itself was lovely. We enjoyed sipping on a couple of coconuts as we let the world go by for a while.
Performances at Lune Performing Center
A receptionist at our hotel saw us looking at fliers one afternoon and pointed out one for a performance called the “AO Show” at the Lune Performing Center. Reading through the information it sounded really interesting so we figured we’d see what it was like. The show itself used a mixture of traditional and modern dance, music and acrobatics to tell a story of the urbanisation of Vietnam. The performers were incredible and there were plenty of comedy elements as well. I’m so glad we went as it was a great show.
Cao lau is the most famous Hoi An dish, particularly as it doesn’t exist anywhere else in Vietnam. According to locals, the thick off-white noodles have to be made with water from specific wells in the city (including Ba Le Well in the old town) as well as ash from log fires that can only be obtained from a nearby Cham island, and the herbs that garnish and flavour the dish have to be sourced from Tra Que Herb Village (who offer cycling tours and cooking classes that looked quite good). The broth is reduced down to a richer sauce and the whole thing is topped with char siu pork and crispy crackers made from frying the noodle batter in the pork juices. I have to admit I was somewhat taken in by the legend, and it is certainly true that you won’t find cao lau elsewhere in the country. The exclusivity and intrigue probably made it taste even better! We had a great cao lau at Trung Bac Restaurant just as they were about to close and loved every bite. The noodles had a delicious depth of flavour (perhaps from the ash) and were a perfect texture – not too soft. The pork was tender, the sauce rich without being cloying, and those crispy crackers on top were the icing on the cake. It was altogether fairly salty and rich, but the portion was just right that it didn’t become too much.
I had also read that the cao lau at the street stall in front of the Japanese Bridge was really good, but we didn’t manage to fit in a visit as they aren’t open later in the evenings.
White Rose dumplings
Like the other dishes listed here you can find white rose dumplings in restaurants across Hoi An, but I’d heard that the place to go is White Rose Restaurant. Serving only White Rose dumplings and banh trang nuong (vietnamese pizza), they certainly drew a crowd of Vietnamese patrons which, for me, told us we were in a great place.
Shaped like little white flowers with a ball of shrimp in the centre, sprinkled with crispy shallots, and served with a sweet sauce for dipping, these dumplings were fiddly to eat but mouth-wateringly delicious. I mean, why wouldn’t you get a second plateful?!
So did Hoi An live up to the high expectations? Yes and no – the Old Town and historical buildings really were beautiful and the food was definitely a highlight. The only slight downside is the crowds that descend throughout the day and into the evening, so it does lack the peaceful vibe of places like Luang Prabang. I’d say it’s more like a cross between Luang Prabang, Venice and Disneyland… Having said all that we had a really great time and it is still absolutely a must when visiting Vietnam.