‘Quaint’ is the adjective travellers most frequently come up with when struggling to describe the small town of Hoi An in central Vietnam. Yes, the old trading town of Hoi An is quaint. And as Vietnam extends a welcome to more tourists, it is becoming one of the most popular stops on the easy-to-navigate mini-bus route from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
But here’s a better way: for an unbeatable introduction to the geographical area in which Hoi An is nestled, catch the train from Hue, the former old capital of Vietnam, to Danang. In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux writes that: "Of all the places the railway had taken [me] since London, this was the loveliest." That was in 1975 – not too much has changed since then. The journey takes around four and a half hours by local train, or three hours on the Reunification Express, the track weaving along a stunning coastline of pure turquoise and brilliant emerald.
From Danang, catch a taxi for the 45-minute drive along the Korean Highway to Hoi An. For around US$15, don’t expect seatbelts or suspension, and don’t be surprised when you’re taken to the hotel of your driver’s choice. Relax: you are probably in good hands. Our driver took us to a hotel ideally located on the edge of Hoi An’s Thu Bon River and a five-minute walk from the market. The earplug-proof karaoke from a nearby home was an extra we could have done without, but then again, enduring the strains of Japan’s most loved and hated contribution to the world is really just another part of the complete Vietnam experience.
Once settled into your hotel, prepare for an amble around town. Hoi An is small and easily explored on foot or by bicycle. A major trading port in Southeast Asia from the late sixteenth century onward, its architecture was heavily influenced by Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese traders who lingered long enough to make their presence felt. There is a remarkably close concentration of old merchant houses and shops, family chapels, temples, communal houses, pagodas. assembly halls, tombs and bridges – as well as an old town well – which serve to evoke an atmosphere reminiscent of the past which may well be unsurpassed elsewhere in Vietnam. Allow at least two to three days to see all the central sights.
Another of Hoi An’s attractions is the food. There is no menu at Cafe de Amis, one of the oldest and most popular cafes in town and located on Bach Dang Street. The rambunctious children who wait on the tables simply ask the customers, "Vegetarian or seafood?" From then on, you’re in the chef’s very capable hands. On the evening we replied "Seafood!", a shrimp mixture wrapped in round rice noodles was served, followed by two tasty tuna dishes. Get there early to secure a verandah table and watch the dusky sky turn to ink over the river while sipping a cold beer.
Another excellent restaurant is Dong Phuong, located a stroll away. Pha, the proprietor, is well-known among travellers for his hospitality. Although there are menus here, you can simply ask to eat whatever he feels like cooking. He said that one traveller suggested he rename the restaurant "Pha Out", and it wasn’t hard to see why. Among the best of the meals we sampled here was a very simple but mouthwatering whole fish grilled with ginger and lemon. When the leftovers were being cleared away, we were gently chastised for missing the delectable flesh in the fish’s cheeks.
The culinary influence of France lingers on in Hoi An, as elsewhere in the country. At first seeming strangely out of place among the fruits and vegetables in the market, the ubiquitous white baguette is a Vietnamese staple. Coupled with a fried egg or two, the meal will get you going in the morning if you need a break from more flavoursome dishes. When ordering from a restaurant near the market, don’t be surprised if your waiter saunters past to pick up the baguette and egg while you wait.
One of the most beautiful in Vietnam, the market here is bustling, but not noisy. There’s a quiet rhythm and ambience about Hoi An that even stallholders, who would be boisterous anywhere else, seem to have succumbed to. Or perhaps they are overwhelmed by the intensity of colours and smells.
Tucked away from the pungent and heady aromas of coriander, freshly baked baguettes, fresh fish and eels, sweating ducks and chicken excrement – earthy smells of life and death – on the other side of the market are the Hoi An tailors. For a very reasonable price, get your measurements taken and, if you can wait for two days while the clothes are being made, you will be well rewarded. Ao dais, the national dress of Vietnamese women, are a popular order by female travellers, as are Chinese-collared dresses. For US $55, I bought four items of silk clothing.
It was at our tailor’s that we sampled Hoi An’s most famous dish, cao lau. A crunchy mixture of bean sprouts, fresh herbs, crumbled rice paper, noodles, and slices or pork tossed in ad delicate sauce, the dish was brought to us simply because we happened to turn up for a fitting when the tailors themselves were eating. Cool mineral water and sweet fat bananas were pressed into our hands as well.
The central Tran Phu Street offers a further array of restaurant and shops: it’s easy to while away an afternoon here, browsing through art and craft shops and stopping for a bowl of Vietnam’s famous pho noodles.
There is plenty to see in the countryside and towns surrounding Hoi An. If you do use the town as a base for a few days, you can travel about with the certainty that there will be a great meal waiting for you at the end of the day. And without requiring too much luck, you’ll also have a comfortable bed where you’ll be lulled to sleep by the rhythmic creaking of an overhead fan and the lapping of the river nearby.
Getting around: Hire a bike and cruise or wear comfortable shoes and cover the town on foot. Motorbikes can also be hired to get to the nearby sites of China Beach, My Son, Cua Dai and the Marble Mountains.
When to go: The dry season between January and March is considered the most pleasant time to visit.
Where to stay: Hotels are concentrated along Tran Phu St and along the Thu Bon River. For a basic double room, expect to pay around US$15 a night.
What to eat: Fresh local seafood is highly recommended, or simply trust a chef to throw whatever takes their fancy together. Fresh fruits from the market are cheap and refreshing in the heat.