asia · travel

The Radiance of Hoi An

It might be apt that the city to capture your heart in Vietnam is in its center. My first visits to the S-shaped nation were to its opposite poles, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. While there was definitely more than the pho that kept me warm inside in the bigger metros, it was hands down Hoi An that swept me off my feet.

Hoi An Old Town River

Where do I start? Hoi An Ancient Town is certainly the greatest draw. Pedestrianized streets allow you to roam with almost none of the motorcycle perils that Vietnam is known for. We must have walked along the same four boulevards over and over, but the colorful shophouses and cheery lanterns are still as charming each time.

As a World Heritage site, the town showcases its heyday as a bustling trading port. Giddy passengers taken around by huffing rickshaw drivers were a blast from the past. To dive right into its history, avail of the Hoi An Entrance Ticket (VND 120,000 = ~USD 5.4) that allows you entry to any 5 of the 22 chartered sights in the old quarters (that’s about a dollar per discovery!). There are plenty to unearth — from museums, to temples, to handicraft workshops. Families even invite you in for a peek at well-preserved ancestral houses. The ticket is valid for 24 hours, which gives you plenty of time to comb the Ancient Town at your leisure.

Hoi An Old Town Cao Lau

If you have never tried Vietnamese cuisine before — DROP EVERYTHING AND STOP MISSING AN IMPORTANT CHUNK OF YOUR LIFE. Hoi An offers up its own delicacies to its guests, like the vibrant Cao Lau or the delicate White Rose Dumplings. Of course, grabbing yourself a low seat at one of the curbside stalls, all to happily slurp pho and devour Hue-style spring rolls, is still a must.

Hoi An Old Town Lanterns

Our hotel was a bit out of town, but our hosts lent us bikes for free. It was like going back to my childhood summers was where all I cared about was how far I could pedal myself on two wheels. We passed through narrow lanes lined with the occasional curious children, cute puppies and then the odd gaggle of long-time friends hugging each other over jugs of La Rue beer.

Drip coffee --- proof that forever exists.
Drip coffee — proof that forever exists.

All the biking and walking around does take a toll, especially on a hot, humid day. Luckily, the town is dotted by coffeehouses, and Vietnamese coffee is not one you should pass up on. Sweet as it may be from the condensed milk, its kick is strong and not for the faint-hearted.

If you just want to duck into shade, you can stroll up to one of the many tailor shops that would be happy to take you in. If you’re looking for a highly-personalized souvenir, then this might actually work out to your benefit. Whether you go all-out high fashion or not, there’s a tailor to match your budget. You can pick out a pattern for a dress or a suit from the chosen tailor’s stylebooks, or bring a picture of what you have in mind. Next, you get to decide on which fabrics you want from the shop’s shelves. After 24 hours — voila! You’re a proud owner of Hoi An couture. We passed by one shop wherein a group of British lads couldn’t hold back their big grins, as they posed for a picture in their new comfy silk pajamas. It was hard not to be envious.

Hoi An Ancient Town Lanterns

The real magic comes at night, though, when the dark draws nigh and garlands of lanterns shine and take centerstage. You know that love is in the air when you bump into your 100th couple trying to take their pre-wedding photos.

Hoi An Old Town Lanterns Women

Even as it got a bit challenging to navigate among the flock of engaged lovebirds, the dreamy haze cast by the lamps still set the mood for romance. A group of ladies were selling wishing lanterns to float down the river, and we bought ourselves two for a dollar each. What a perfect way to end the day. I lovingly whispered a prayer to my lantern, before releasing it downstream. May we never run out of magical memories like these.

To get to Hoi An, catch a flight to Da Nang Airport, then hop on a 40-minute cab ride to Hoi An (our fare a regular car was USD 17 one-way).

The Run-down:

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