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This stunning and compact little town in central Vietnam might be small enough to walk in under an hour, but it packs enough of a culinary and cultural punch to keep you charmed for days on end.
Nestled between a beautiful stretch of pristine beach and the crook of the lazy Thu Bon river, Hoi An’s long and illustrious history as an international trading port is writ large on its elegant and eclectic mix of Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and French colonial architecture. The remarkably well-preserved old town is Hoi An’s star attraction, so picturesque it almost looks like a film set; chinese lanterns float above alleyways and canals flanked by canary yellow and dark-wood shopfronts. Among these you’ll find everything from tailors and ice cream parlours to museums and performance spaces, as well as some of the best food and drink anywhere in Vietnam. You won’t find a car or motorbike in sight after 7pm in the old town – a blessed relief for anyone who has spent time in this part of the world – and while it’s hardly tourist free, the swell of people is more an endorsement than nuisance and gives this ancient town the vibrant buzz of contemporary Vietnamese life.
Get tailored in the old town
Tailor shops are abundant in the old town, offering everything from men’s suits and silk shirts to traditional Vietnamese dresses and robes. They’re a big draw for tourists and lend the old town much of its charm. These shops are actually just for taking measurements and orders, the tailoring being outsourced. Regardless, you can walk away with an incredibly well made, bespoke item inside of three days.
Cycle into the countryside
Although it can get fiercely hot in high season, Hoi An’s flat topography and breezy cradle between the beach and river makes it ideal for cycling, especially early in the day. Trace the road along the riverfront and cross over to the larger islands to see Vietnamese rural life at its most picturesque, complete with half-built pagodas, water buffalos and miles of rice paddies. You can pick up a bike from almost any hotel or guesthouse.
Cua Dai Beach
Head a few kilometres out of town to Cua Dai beach. A lot quieter than the southern beach of Nha Trang and or the historically infamous China Beach just up the coast in Da Nang, but with the same pristine sand and wonderfully warm South China Sea water, you’d be hard pressed to find a nicer swimming spot in Vietnam.
Vietnam is a nation famous for its food, with each province offering something deliciously different, but Hoi An takes the culinary crown with these signature dishes…
Vietnamese cuisine is rightly celebrated for its interplay of flavour, texture and its regionality and no meal does this so well as Cao Lau. Just like Hoi An’s architecture, this signature local dish reflects the town’s multicultural past. Thick, udon-style noodles nestle in an unmistakably Vietnamese gravy, topped with barbecued pork, slivers of crackling, and a side of fresh, minty local greens to add at your discretion. Legend has it that Cao Lau noodles can only be made with water from a specific well in the old town. For the best Cao Lau during the day, try any of the busier stalls in the central market. Once the sun goes down, head across the bridge to An Hoi island and skirt left along the river’s edge until you reach the last stand, Hi! restaurant. It’s great alongside their duck spring rolls.
Another local speciality, albeit one you can get all across Vietnam, Mi Quang (meaning Quang style noodles). It features flat, deliciously slippery rice noodles in a slightly sweet broth, usually topped with pork, shrimp, herbs and, if you’re getting the real deal, a toasted square of sesame rice paper. Although named for the noodles, the broth here is the real star; rich, intense, artfully spiced. This is another one you’re best off sampling in the market. If, however, you’re feeling adventurous you can get an even better bowl at the street stands of neighbouring Da Nang, although the surroundings won’t be nearly as atmospheric.
Bia hoi and fried wontons
Bia hoi – fresh, frothy short-brewed draft beer – is unbeatable for fighting Vietnam’s pounding heat. Bought fresh every day by small bars and street stalls, these kegs serve up a drink light and fruity enough to win over even the most staunch beer dodger. Famously easy on the wallet, it costs the equivalent of around 10 pence. In Hoi An, bia hoi has found its perfect accompaniment: fried wontons. A hangover from its Chinese merchant past, these crispy, sauce-topped treats offer a salty, crunchy contrast to your refreshing beer. This duo is available all over Hoi An but is best sampled at Minh Hien vegetarian restaurant, after or alongside the crispy tofu skin garlic rice or turmeric noodles.
Situated right in the heart of the action, this modern hotel offers excellent amenities, unbeatable views and sleek, comfortable and well laid out interiors. The pool is to die for – as are the cocktails.
This beautifully laid out hotel is located a short walk from the old town. As well as some excellent facilities including a spa, beauty centre and barber service, La Residencia also offers a shuttle bus to a stretch of private beach.
Perhaps the most classically beautiful hotel in town, with lacquered floors, traditional decoration and dark wood furnishings, Little Hoi An comfortably sets itself among the old world glamour which makes Hoi An so appealing. It also has a private beach and spa.
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