15 Jan 2018

Hoi An: A Relaxing Break

Night is the best time to explore the island portion of Hoi An's historic downtown.

We visited Hoi An for four nights in the middle of our two weeks in Vietnam, sandwiched between overnight train rides from Hanoi and onward to Saigon. This ended up being a perfect amount of time to see Hoi An, eat plenty of good food, and get a bit of a respite from the quicker-than-usual pace we had been keeping in Myanmar and northern Vietnam. A lot of visitors only stay a night or two, but it’s a great place to really settle in and enjoy.

Hoi An is very touristy. It’s not just foreign tourists but also a lot of Vietnamese tourists from other areas. The streets are full of people, especially at night and with all the shopping, selfies, and vendors selling cheap light-up trinkets in the street at night; you get a little bit of a feeling of being on the Vietnamese version of Main Street at Disneyland. Don’t get me wrong, the city is beautiful, especially at night, but you will be enjoying it with throngs of other people.

What We Did in Hoi An

Day 1: We arrived in Hoi An at 1pm and checked in to the Thien Thanh Hotel, in the northeast corner of the area immediately surrounding the historic downtown. We had a great stay with them, and the value of the place is amazing compared to anything back home.

After a week of rain and fog in Hanoi and on Cat Ba Island, we had been checking the forecasts regularly and were saddened to see that while our arrival day would be sunny and warm we would be subjected to more rain and clouds for the rest of our stay. Given that prognosis, we dropped our things off and headed straight out to explore the touristic area.

We gave ourselves a nice walking tour of the mainland portion of the historic neighborhood, tried the local Cao Lau dish (brown noodles) which we found to be pretty mediocre, stopped at a tailor shop that had been recommended to us (more on that below) and walked through the central market before deciding we were too tired from our overnight train ride to do any more without a break. It turns out that unlike a lot of places we have been so far, Hoi An is really best enjoyed after dark. We had a lovely dinner of wrap-your-own meat and vegetables at Bale Well and then wandered around the island section of the historic neighborhood, ignoring more hawkers than we could count and meandering through the long line of trinket and food stalls that is set up each night.

Dinner at Bale Well.

Day 2: Our one pre-planned activity for Hoi An was a cooking class. There are countless options that can be intimidating but because there is so much competition prices are lower than at a lot of our other destinations. After some research we picked the Hoi An Eco Cooking Class which ended up being a lot of fun, if not exactly what they promise it will be online (they skipped the part of the experience where you bargain for ingredients at the market, which we were really looking forward to).

Left: Attempting to make fresh rice paper. Right: Flambé!

We made:

  • Sweet and sour fish sauce: This was the best fish sauce I’ve ever had. I’m not sure if it was the brand of fish sauce used as a base or the lime juice, sugar, chile, and garlic we added but it was phenomenal.
  • Fresh rice paper: We had fun trying our hand at making them by hand the old fashioned way - on a cloth stretched tight over of a boiling bowl of water. This was fun and actually pretty easy, to my surprise.
  • Fresh spring rolls: We used that hand-made rice paper to hand-roll a couple of spring rolls and have them with fish sauce as a snack while we cooked.
  • Banana flower salad with shrimp: The main ingredient is part of a banana tree between the trunk/branch and the sprouting bananas, and tastes a bit like green papaya. Probably the only dish we made we have no hope of recreating back home.
  • Beef phở: We learned the key ingredients to make a phở smell like phở and not just beef soup are star anise, ginger, and cinnamon. They did the rest of this dish for us so it was probably the lamest part of the class.
  • Bánh xèo (crispy rice pancake): Soaked in oil and pan-fried in a smoking hot pan, it’s hard to go wrong with these. Of all the bánh xèo we had in Vietnam, the ones we made ourselves were probably the best, possibly due to the addition of a bit of coconut milk.
  • Eggplant with soy sauce: The most fun part of cooking this dish was flambéing the sauce and having 3 feet of flames coming up out of the pan, but it was a lot better than most eggplant dishes I’ve tasted.

Left and Center: Fresh spring rolls. Right: Everything else we cooked!

After our morning cooking class we took a break, got coffee at Bep Truong, which has a lovely rooftop right in the thick of it, and then walked across a bridge to Cam Nam island, which is pretty much devoid of tourists even though it’s less than five minutes away from the central market. Our plan had been to have dinner by the water out there but either we picked a wrong day or were too early and nothing local was open yet. We ended up back on the edges of the historic area at Phở Xua, which has really good beef phở in addition to some other options. Again, we made the walk back to the island section of the historic neighborhood and found a quiet restaurant balcony on Nguyễn Hoàng Street where we could relax and watch all the vendors and tourists below us.

Day 3: For another day the promised rain didn’t actually arrive and we enjoyed wandering around the historic area before venturing out to a non-touristy neighborhood for an authentic local dinner.

We submitted ourselves to the line at Bánh mì Phượng, which Anthony Bourdain made famous (and is completely worth it), spent time shopping for some replacement clothes, and had another relaxed coffee at Bep Truong. For dinner, we made the trek out to Cơm Gà An Hiền, which specializes in Cơm Gà (“chicken rice”), one of the most common meals of the area. We again enjoyed the experience of being the only foreigners there but weren’t blown away by the food. It was honestly our only miss of our first week in Vietnam eating street/local food. I was still pretty hungry afterward so we made our way back to the island section of the historic neighborhood and tracked down a piping-hot banana pancake to eat with chocolate sauce – yummy (and not “yum” which apparently means “horny” here!)!

Day 4: After two straight days of predicted rain without any actual rain, we decided to ignore the forecast completely and rent bicycles for the day (~2.5 USD total for two) so we could explore Cam Kim island, on the other side of the island section of the historic neighborhood. We had a nice time meandering around the small roads and paths and seeing the quick transition from built-up to rice paddies, water buffalo plowing, and no cars in site. We ended up biking 10 miles around the area, including a stop at Ben Xua - a local restaurant made from bamboo and floating right on the river - for lunch. They had more choice than we expected and we struggled a bit to order without any Vietnamese, but everything came out tasting good!

Day 5: Our last day in Hoi An was mostly spent in transit. We made a quick mid-morning trip back to Bánh mì Phượng to get a handful of sandwiches to have later in the day and then got in our taxi back to Da Nang.

Shopping in Hoi An

Talk to anyone who has spent much time traveling around Vietnam and pretty soon they’ll ask you whether you plan to have clothes made in Hoi An. There is a booming industry of tailor shops spread around the touristy area, as well as leather shops that specialize in shoes, belts, and bags. The enthusiasm for it seems to be a bit overblown to us, as the cost of items that would be more expensive back home were still pretty expensive here–I think we missed the boat by 5-10 years on getting real steals. Regardless, some of what we’ve been wearing constantly for the past 4 months has worn out or broken so we tried to do a little bit of shopping.

Suit for Amy: Before we arrived, on the recommendation of Travelfish.org, Amy had contacted Be Be Tailor for a quote on the low and high end price for getting a custom suit made to use for work when we’re back in the U.S. The quote seemed pretty reasonable, so we decided to stop by one of their shops. Unfortunately when we stopped in the shop on our first day to let her look at fabrics and have measurements taken they first tried to get her to choose a different suit style, even though she had brought emailed and brought in the image she wanted, increased the estimated cost quite a bit over the high end of the quote, and didn’t seem to have any material like the one she was looking for. All of the shops have their walls lined with countless fabrics in different patterns, colors, and textures, but apparently that is all for show and you only really have the option to pick from a more narrow selection of swatches. We left without getting a suit made and remain confused why others have talked about how great getting things made there is. Maybe if you’re looking for a standard suit, it would be worth it but if your hoping for something unique it is not so easy.

Button down shirts for Nate: I had packed two thin linen button downs for the trip so I could use them for sun protection during the day (without being too hot) and to be more formal if needed for a nice dinner. Unfortunately both of them are wearing through in places, so I was on the hunt for replacements. Unfortunately most of the shops in Hoi An were set up to sell either (1) tailored dress shirts for suits; or (2) touristy t-shirts.

On our first day we didn’t see a single shop that had casual button downs, so on our second when we saw one hanging in a shop I jumped at the opportunity. They didn’t have a light blue option, but the shopkeeper offered to have one made overnight for me in my chosen color at no extra charge (which probably means I didn’t negotiate well enough in the first place!) and I ended up with a nice blue-green collarless button-down that will hopefully last through a good portion of Southeast Asia for 11 USD.

After wearing that one around for a day I was happy with how airy the fabric was and decided to get another, since they’re so thin and likely won’t last that long. My goal was to bargain well enough to get this one for under 9 USD, so we sought out the one other shop in Hoi An we’d seen a similar shirt hanging. After being told by this vendor that the light blue I wanted was “a girls color and so you can’t have it” I ended up getting two shirts: one gray, one white. The vendor started trying to sell me one shirt for 20 USD but with a little bargaining I ended up paying just over 17 USD for two, which I was pretty happy about. After two wears for each shirt I’m pretty happy with them!

Sandals for Amy: Amy’s Chaco sandals, selected pre-trip after a lot of research, had been great up until one of the treads split nearly in two in Myanmar. While their warranty would cover a replacement, we would have to cover the cost of shipping which would far outweigh the value of the shoes. After hunting around Hoi An for suitable sporty sandals without any success, we ended up stopping at a couple of leather shops to see how much it would cost to have new sandals custom-made. I think Amy was a bit overwhelmed by how many choices there were (dozens and dozens of strap designs, leathers, and treads) but successfully bargained down from 25 USD to 18 USD for the pair to be completed before we left the next day.

If nothing else, getting some experience both bargaining and having things custom made was good entertainment.

Getting To and From Hoi An

We took overnight sleeper trains from Hoi An, and onward to Saigon on either side of our stay in Hoi An. Since Hoi An doesn’t have a station of its own, we used Da Nang, which is about a 45 minutes (~12 USD) taxi ride from the historic area of Hoi An. Since we did both halves, we completed the full length of the Reunification Line, which had been divided in two from 1954 to 1976.

Our trip from Hanoi to Da Nang departed at 7:30pm and arrived just before noon (about 30 minutes late), and was a fine trip. We shared the cabin with a fellow tourist from France and a local who didn’t speak any English and exited at Vinh around 2am, surprising us all. The train cars are relatively new and except for the quite-hard mattresses were a perfectly fine way to spend an evening.

Our trip onward from Da Nang to Saigon departed at 1:35pm (15 minutes late) and arrived at 5:25am the next morning. Unfortunately this trip was a bit rougher, sharing with a Vietnamese couple and their young child who spent a good portion of the night throwing coins against the wall and speaking out loud to no one. We had a nice reminder of the disregard for personal space prevalent in a lot of Asian cultures too as they treated our beds as their own seats at times. The one plus of this journey was that a restaurant car was actually included in the train, so we escaped to there for a couple hours of beer and surprisingly-good phở. We were pretty happy to get off just to hang out in the quiet of the station waiting room until sunrise, when we trekked the 2+ miles to our next real bed.

How We Did with Our Budget

For our time in Vietnam, we had budgeted as much as $45 dollars a night for accommodations. We ended up spending exactly that per night in Hoi An for a really lovely hotel in a quiet area on the edge of the tourist district. The included breakfast was great and we even took a dip in the (oddly cold) pool. We had also budgeted $8 dollars per day per person for food and $15 dollars per day per person for entertainment. Out of that planned $46 per day, we ended up spending $49 per day on average, including our cooking class ($64 total) and the clothes/shoes we bought ($47 total for leather sandals and three button-downs).

Just like TripAdvisor!