After two train rides (for a total of 16 hours – I am not crazy about the idea of flying in Vietnam), we arrived in the much anticipated Hoi An, and it did not disappoint. The area offers a compelling combination of history, beach and culinary delights with a bike-friendly town center. It is the kind of place we could spend a month or two!
Hoi An, recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is a small town of 120,000 people on the central coast of Vietnam with incredible architecture dating back hundreds of years that attracts an interesting set of locals and visitors looking for awesome food and beautiful beaches.
The town has been a strategic, commercial port since the 1st century when Vietnam was part of the Champa Kingdom. Around the 15th century, Hoi An was a major port in Asia along the spice route. As a result, it has an interesting mix of architectures influenced by the Chinese, French, and Japanese. The downtown area is extremely well-preserved. For example, during the 16th and 17th century,the Japanese settled here and built a lot of infrastructure including a bridge that still stands today. The Chùa Cầu bridge is unique in that it is the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist temple attached to one side.
Hoi An attracts a lot of tourists but do not be dissuaded. To reinvent itself in the 90’s, Hoi An attracted UNESCO funding and became a major tourist destination. It is a beautiful town with hundreds of shops and restaurants. The shop competition is fierce here, and custom tailors are a specialty here. There are over 1,000 tailors that turn out custom shoes, boots, shirts, dresses, suits, bags and more for visitors that flock here for inexpensive, tailor-made clothes. If you need a light blue tuxedo with ruffles or a little black dress for a night out in Manhattan, you can find someone to make it for you.
Our hotel, Essence Hotel and Spa, had 1-speed cruiser bikes that were a great way to ride to the beach or check out downtown. (We definitely would recommend this hotel. A nice location about 1K from town and 3K from the beach with a great gym( for working off all the Banh Mi we have been eating), private beach access, and lovely, spacious rooms.) We took the bike one day and went to the gorgeous An Bang Beach which was very clean and stretched out for at least 10 km.
Hoi An is also a culinary mecca for things like Cau Lau, Banh Mi, and Pho. Hoi An’s speciality of Cau Lau is a noodle that is made from rice and water . The water is supposedly from a well in Hoi An. The locals place the ash of the La Gai leaf into collected well water. The water and ash are then left overnight to rest, and then it is this water that is then used to make the noodles which gives them a light brown hue. We had some Cau Lau at Pho Xua which was great. We didn’t have time to try many versions, but this one definitely worked for us.
We tried Banh Mi at two hot spots – Madam Khanh’s and Banh Mi Phuong. Madam Khanh’s Banh Mi, in my opinion, is the best. It is a hole-in-the wall shop at the front of the family home. Madam Khanh is a lovely, feisty woman who has been making Banh Mi for decades.
If you go, she will direct you where to leave your bike. Walk into the shop and grab a seat. Do not wait for the menu and just relax. There is a lot of love in these sandwiches. We tried to watch her prepare these wonderful sandwiches and not sure exactly what was in the concoction. This spot is not to be missed.
Another non-descriptive Banh Mi place in town is Banh Mi Phuong. Chris liked the Banh Mi slightly better here. If you are in Hoi An, check them both out.