From creating authentic Vietnamese cuisine to touring the bustling market, Penny Watson samples five unmissable highlights of Vietnam’s colonial Hoi An.
Hoi An translates as “peaceful meeting place”, a fitting description for a town that channels less of the chaotic buzz of Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, and more of the laid-back charm expected in Vietnam’s regional areas.
At its heart is the heritage-listed and beautifully preserved Ancient Town –a major trading port from the 15th to the 19th centuries and now an architectural gem of foreign and local influences. It was classified as a National Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985.
The Chinese temples and Japanese merchant houses in this car-free zone evoke the charismatic Hoi An of old. Add the glowing lanterns strung between buildings and the exotic aromas emanating from the rows of traditional eateries, and it’s likely you’ll feel like staying a while. Here are five experiences to include on your must-do list.
Get creative with Vietnamese cuisine
There’s nothing quite like the crackle of garlic and chilli as they hit a hot wok, nor the scents of fragrant coriander, lemongrass and mint when freshly cut. These ingredients often form the base of Vietnam’s famed cuisine and a Morning Glory Cooking School class promises to unveil the secrets of much-loved rice paper rolls and pho, alongside local favourites such as Hoi An crispy pancakes and cao lau, a tantalisingly good noodle and pork dish. Guests will dine on the dishes they prepare, then make keepsakes of the recipes to rekindle memories back home.
Hit the market
A visit to buzzing Hoi An Central Market, housed in a characteristic building on the banks of the Thu Bon River, is one of the country’s most exceptional food destinations. The rows are lined with stalls brandishing piles of limes, ginger, pineapples and chillis, and operated by women, young and old, all variously clad in printed floral sets and conical hats. The experience not only delivers an aromatic immersion into the local produce, it’s also a glimpse into the livelihoods of Hoi An residents. Favourite local dishes are cheap here, as is nuoc mía, a delicious sugarcane juice.
The Thu Bon River is the chief source of income for many Hoi An locals. River boat rides offer an up-close look at local fishing communities and a chance to admire the river delta scenery, from fishermen unloading their catch of shrimp, crab and fish from the overnight trawlers to the spider web-style circular fishing nets strung between poles
Take a trip back in time
There is no shortage of historic buildings in Hoi An’s Ancient Town. At last count, there were more than 1,000 old timber-frame buildings of the kind typical in the 17th and 18th centuries. Two hundred-year-old Tan Ky House, a riverside shophouse built by a Chinese merchant, has an exquisite wood carved interior and a mix of Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese architectural styles. The Japanese Bridge, built in 1590, is another must-see. It has a tiled roof with carved ornamentation and a temple devoted to the God of Weather.
Explore local villages
Hoi An’s surrounding villages are remarkably close to the ancient town centre, especially when you’re on a bicycle. Cross over the river to find concrete paths winding their way through rural scenery and past small enclaves with colourfully painted concrete villas. You’ll see vibrant green rice paddies, temples decorated with gold statues and beslippered old folk sitting on their porches. Keep an eye out for old wooden fishing vessels and children paddling in bamboo basket boats.