Hoi An is one of those places that conjures up daydreams of an ideal far away land – exotic, beautiful, and seemingly right out of a fairy tale. There’s still a French Colonial influence to be seen in the architecture and local restaurants, but I found the French theme to somehow work seamlessly well with the traditional Vietnamese culture there. From street food at plastic picnic tables serving up mouthwatering local delicacies, to high class art galleries and couture clothing shops, there is something for everyone in Hoi An.
My first night I was walking around at dusk, and I remember taking a mental picture in my head to try and capture the contentment I felt to be in such a gem. Walking along Thu Bon River I saw the city come to life at night, a boat turned into a cool bar one moment, and the next I was in front of three Vietnamese locals in matching pink ao dais and nón lás (traditional Vietnamese female garb and conical hats). Hoi An is one of the prettiest places I’ve found myself, and one that I would go back to in a heartbeat.
These are a few of my favorite things…
Handmade Dresses and Shoes
If you’ve heard about Hoi An before, you’ve most likely heard that it’s the place to go if you want to buy handmade clothes, shoes, suits, etc. Although they sell the handmade clothes at Western prices, it is well worth the price you pay to design a piece that will fit you to measurement, and that you know no one else will be wearing.
There are multiple little boutiques that line the streets, all offering slightly different prices and styles for you to choose from. Prices can range anywhere from $20-$40US for a dress or shoes, and upwards of $100US for a full piece suit. Although expensive for Vietnam, these were still a fraction of the price if I were to have clothes tailor-made from a local shop back home.
I spent the day walking around to a few different shops, taking a look inside at their catalogs or dresses on display, and talking prices for different styles of dresses until I found one suitable to my budget and my taste. Since it’s the color I have the least in my wardrobe, I chose to design a bright pink dress with a red lining to make it a bit richer, and a style that was flowy and had a nice twirl to it because it reminded me of summer. It cost me $36US and was well worth the cost with how much I love owning a piece I designed and had made abroad.
After telling the shopkeeper exactly how I wanted the dress to look, I went back the following day for my fitting, and by the third day I had a brand new dress at my disposal. The woman who owned the shop was helpful and friendly, although very insistent in trying to make me more dresses, even offering a buy 3 get 1 free deal. How she expected I could fit four new dresses in my tiny backpack is beyond me, but nonetheless, she was definitely a good saleswoman and I was seriously tempted to design a second dress.
Now, that one dress was the only handmade piece I was planning on buying, but when the woman said her friend owned the shoe shop across the way and that I should take a look, I found a perfect pair of greek sandals in my favorite color to replace the ones I had already broken on my trip. Again, I had my fitting and I was even able to pick the quality of leather I wanted for the sole. My sandals cost me $23US and I wear them everywhere in nice weather, especially when I was in Sydney for the summer.
Having clothes made in Hoi An was such a positive and fun experience, and I was happy that I was able to participate in one of the aspects that the city is famous for.
The Local Dish: Cao Lao
I’ve always been a fan of Vietnamese foods, of course when I say a “fan”, I have to admit I didn’t try a great variety of dishes besides my great love affair with pho before I arrived in Vietnam.
Thai food has always been my favorite Asian cuisine, but the food I tried in Vietnam was just as delicious if not more so than what I tried in Thailand. Vietnamese food also turned out to be the healthiest and freshest as a whole out of all the other countries I traveled to in Southeast Asia.
While in Vietnam, I focused on trying as much street food and local specialties as possible. After eating bugs in Bangkok, I knew I could probably stomach most of anything and I was ready and gearing to have some new tastes on my palette. Of course, I still had a lot of pho in my journey, but I was surprised at how it wasn’t all that popular and sometimes nonexistent at some eateries we found down the coast of Vietnam. The best pho I’ve had in my life is still the one I had my first night in Saigon, at a roadside restaurant with mostly all Vietnamese men inside and only a few items on the menu.
Most times when we would sit at the plastic picnic tables down alleyways or on the side of the road, there wouldn’t even be a menu, and at times, it would just be one dish they were serving. However, you know that if they only serve one dish, they must be really good at making it, so I seemed to always find the most delicious delicacies at the roadside street food.
In Hanoi, I ate bún chả for the first time down a little alleyway in the French district. I actually didn’t know what it was at the time I ate it, but I looked it up once I arrived back at the hostel, because it was incredibly tasty and the first time I had genuinely enjoyed eating pork as a main meat. It’s crazy how Vietnamese dishes are so simple, yet carry so much flavor and mouthwatering combinations. Bún chả, which is thought to have originated in Hanoi, is just grilled or barbequed pork with white rice noodles and some greens to top it off. That simple, and yet it was one of my favorite dishes in my Southeast Asia travels.
But back to Hoi An and my experience with their specialty, the equally delicious Cao Lao. It’s very similar to bún chả, having most of the same ingredients, but the noodles are cooked a different way, and the pork grilled and thinly sliced. Instead of the greens, it comes with croutons, mint, chili and a sauce (as opposed to a broth for bún chả).
As I mentioned for my first night in Hoi An, I was walking along the river at dusk and it was, well in a word, beautiful. This street food restaurant was just near the river, and I ate there my first night, while the sun was making its final descent and all the paper lanterns were turning on and the streets were coming alive with tourists and local Vietnamese alike. It was one of those moments that makes you grateful for travel.
The Central Market
The Central Market is a hub of activity and chaos. As soon as you enter, you have Vietnamese women shouting at you to try their food stall or asking you a million questions about where you come from, what you like to eat, where you’re going, if you have a husband. It’s exciting, the smells enticing as you walk around the stalls, or less than stellar as you make your way closer to the toilets. The Central Market is where you find more of a traditional Vietnamese culture when the rest of Hoi An can seem very touristy and Westernized in comparison. It is also where you find some of the cheapest food.
It’s worth an afternoon to go explore the market and look at the different food stalls and what new specialties they’re offering that you’ve yet to try. I ate there twice, once for a fix of pho, and the second time at a buffet style stall. I honestly didn’t know half the dishes I was eating as the woman didn’t speak much English, but I tried almost everything that was offered regardless, and it turned out completely fine.
The Cargo Club
My guilty pleasure in Hoi An. One of the many Westernized restaurants in the city, The Cargo Club, is a pricey French bakery in the middle of town. You know when you’ve been traveling for awhile and you just crave something familiar? Well, I’ve never been one to go to McDonalds while I’m traveling abroad unless I’m dying of hunger (maybe not that extreme but you get the point). My real weakness is buttery, flaky, pastry (hence, my new found love of meat pie when I moved to Australia). I went to the Cargo Club my first day in Hoi An, and they had the most tasty chocolate croissant I’ve tried in my life – yes, that’s including Paris. I ended up spending an hour or two there every afternoon I was in Hoi An in my happy state of mind with a chocolate croissant in one hand and a book in another.
I’ve always loved spending a copious amount of time in cafes, reading, writing, or working on this or that. I realized in Asia that I never really was able to do that much of just lounging in cafes while constantly on the road. Hoi An turned out to be my place of luxury and indulgence, and those couple of hours in a French cafe were no exception to the contentment I felt there.
Biking to Cua Dai Beach
On my last day in Hoi An, my friend and I decided to take a quick bike trip to the nearby beach, Cua Dai, about a 2o minute bike ride away. We hired bikes across the street from where we were staying at the Hop Yen Hotel for the equivalent of less than $1US and hit the road. This was my first experience biking in Vietnam, or Southeast Asia in general, and I have to say it wasn’t as crazy scary as I thought it would be. I don’t know if I would ever want to try bicylcing around Saigon, or even Hanoi, as they’re not the most bike friendly places I’ve been to in my life.
The beach wasn’t spectacular like the ones we found in Thailand or Cambodia, or even Nha Trang a bit further south in Vietnam, but it was a perfect way to relax on one of our last days in Asia. The beach was windy when we arrived, so it was worth it to pay for one of the beach chairs they have set up on the sand, otherwise there was constantly sand blowing in your eyes when you tried to lay down on a towel. The beach chairs were far more affordable than the ones we found lined up and down the beaches in Bali by a long shot (only $1.50US for the whole day), so we were quite happy to indulge.
The food along the beach is at least twice as expensive as most local eateries in town and not all that tasty, so if you don’t want to splurge for airport-esque food, make sure to pack a lunch or bring some snacks for your day at the beach.
The Lack of Leering Men
During my travels through Southeast Asia I found more than my fair share of catcalls, leering looks, and even a horrible experience of getting full on groped on the side of the road in Malaysia by local men. Not because of a short skirt I was wearing (not that that’s even a reason), or because I was asking for it, mind you, but simply due to my gender and/or my label as a “Western” woman.
I can’t tell you how quickly I lose my temper in situations where I feel singled out due to my sex, and I’d even go so far as to say it was one of the most challenging aspects of traveling through Southeast Asia. Although I try my best to ignore such behavior by local men, I’m also not one to stand by, lower my eyes, and allow them to think it’s an acceptable way to treat another human being. While abroad, however, it is the the safer option as a female traveler when you’re immersed in another culture with varying respect for women.
On one particularly long and irritating travel day, I was walking by myself in Bangkok to buy a bus ticket up to northern Thailand, when I passed by a large group of African men at a cafe. They immediately started making kissy noises, grabbing their crotches, and yelling the cliche sexist things gross men are fond of saying.
I stopped in my tracks, looked them in the eye, made the most disgusted face I could muster, put up both middle fingers and mouthed the appropriate words to go along with it. They stared at me, mouths agape and soon after started shouting obscenities at me as I quickly walked on. I just kept thinking, “did I really just do that?”, “what has gotten into me!?”, and “thank god it’s daytime and there are people around.” Maybe not my finest moment, but honestly, the look on their faces was priceless.
The taxi drivers in almost every Asian country we visited were some of the worst types of men to pass by, because more often than not they would give you some sort of unwanted attention. Hoi An, being such a small city, didn’t have many cabbies at all, so maybe that was one of the reasons why I felt a relief from leering men. It is also a very touristy place compared to a lot of other cities in Vietnam, so Western women may not be as much of a unique sight to see. Whatever the reason, it was one of the big aspects that contributed to my love for Hoi An. I didn’t feel the need to always be on my guard or expect a lascivious comment from the man across the street every time I would walk down it.
A Walkable Place to Get Lost
Hoi An is a very walkable city because of its size and cut through alleyways that make up the city. I love cities where I can walk from point A to point B and not have to worry about a car. I love walkable places to get lost. Hoi An was a great place for that with all of the souvenir shops, galleries, Central Market, and cool boutiques that lined every street. It’s an easy place to spend money or test your restraint and have an epic day of window shopping, whatever you budget or preference may be.
Have you ever been to Hoi An? What was your experience?
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