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If you’d like to experience a living museum that is as large as an entire city, come to Hoi An. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, this charming little port-city hasn’t changed much over the years despite a rapid increase of development in other popular cities across Vietnam. Once known as the most important trading port in the whole of Asia before the business moved to Da Nang, it is here that Chinese, Japanese, French, and Indonesian cultures were beautifully merged in architecture, lifestyle, food, language, and traditions. It’s no wonder “Hoi An” means “peaceful meeting place”. Travelling to Hoi An is like travelling back in time. A good length of stay would be at least three days so you’ll have enough time to taste and see why people love coming to this little town.
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Festivals are one of the main events that attract thousands of travellers to Vietnam each year, and the people of Hoi An certainly know how to throw a good party. In fact, they do this on the 14th of every month for the Lantern Festival. What started as a festival to observe the full moon and all the good things it brings, soon became a good reason for families and loved ones to just gather and spread light and warmth around their homes by sending lanterns floating on the river or hanging them around the town as whispered prayers to the deities. As you can imagine, this would make quite a magical experience and very pretty travel pictures as dusk arrives.
Another festival unique to Hoi An is the Thanh Ha Pottery Village Festival. Pottery is significant in Vietnamese history and the craftsmen of this village have been creating beautiful clay art for more than 500 years. January 10th is dedicated to honouring this tradition educating the present generation as well. You’ll get to observe pottery competitions and try your hand at making a piece yourself.
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To really experience a new country or culture is to immerse yourself in it. Not just eat, shop and leave but get to know the people, learn a new skill, and bring home richer memories from your travels. Hoi An and the surrounding area offers plenty of opportunities for this and you can start by learning another art which the locals are very proud of - bamboo making! Taboo Bamboo Workshop is operated by Tan, who is part of the third generation of bamboo builders in Cam Thanh village just 5km out of Hoi An. To keep his family heritage alive, Tan started this business that invites people of all ages to discover how bamboo can be the answer to sustainable living. You’ll get an introduction to the bamboo treating process and make your own bamboo item too of course, all for a starting price of RM410.
Lantern making is also a common heritage craft in Hoi An, as you might have guessed already with the amount of lanterns needed for monthly festivals. Nhat runs a personal lantern making workshop in English where you’ll get to make your own Vietnamese jewel-shaped lantern out of bamboo and beautiful coloured silks. The workshop is about RM92 per person and includes tea time as well. Think about all the conversations you’ll get to have with your guests when they visit you at home and see a collection of self-made lanterns hanging in your living room!
Photo by Đàm Tướng Quân
Bring home another piece of Hoi An in the form of a bespoke ao dai from one of Hoi An’s many fine tailors. An ao dai is a traditional outfit worn by Vietnamese women, usually made of high quality Vietnamese silk. It’s similar to the Chinese cheong sam, but usually with sleeves that go to the elbows, a very high and tight collar, high slits on both sides that go right up to the wearer’s waist, and is worn with waist-high long flowy pants. Designed to appreciate the curves of a woman, everything about the ao dai exudes practicality and elegance. Some of the best and most reliable tailors in Hoi An are Bebe Tailor, Yaly Couture, and A Dong Silk (they can get it done in just four hours!). Most of these tailors are also well-versed in making quality suits for men at very affordable prices.
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Vietnamese cuisine is easy to learn and makes a healthy meal option with an Asian twist if you’re bored of eating salad all the time. Cooking classes are a-plenty in Hanoi, and learning from someone instead of a recipe on the Internet will give you the chance to ask as many questions as you like about the history of dishes that are unique to Hoi An, how it should be best prepared, and perhaps a few personal heritage stories too. Some cooking classes will involve a trip to the market as well. The classes at Red Bridge Cooking School are conducted daily, starting at the Tra Que Organic Village where you pick your own herbs for cooking later on. The full package also includes a good meal and a leisurely boat ride back to central Hoi An, all for about RM240 per person.
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Being in a heritage city like Hoi An gives you the perfect opportunity to try food that is authentic and unique to central Vietnam. You’ll find Cao Lau a popular dish in this part of the country. It is a light and simple dish mainly consisting of thick rice noodles in pork broth, barbecued pork and bean sprouts. Cao Lau can be found at Mot Restaurant, Bon Restaurant, and Trung Bac Restaurant.
Snack on banh bao vac - Hoi An’s delicious little ‘white rose’ rice dumplings that are filled with flavour thanks to a combination of either prawns or pork meat with onions and spices. These starters or fillers are usually on the menu at most restaurants around Hoi An.
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As for drinks, there’s nothing like a good kick of coffee to keep you going. Vietnam produces and serves their coffee very differently from the rest of the world. Starting with a French drip style, freshly brewed coffee is then served with thick sweetened condensed milk. At Hoi An Roastery, you get to try something even more unusual - coffee with egg. You read that right. If condensed milk was a substitute for fresh milk, egg yolk was the substitute of condensed milk. Whipped up into a thick froth, the creamy combination can be quite pleasing to the palate.
Image by Reaching Out Tea House
Finally, under the unique food and restaurants category, if there is one cafe you must visit on your trip, it is Reaching Out Tea House. It's more than a restaurant business as it supports the community of people with speech and hearing impairments, creating an inclusive environment for these locals to earn a good living. Dining here gives you the opportunity to sip your tea in peace and contribute to the community as a thirsty traveller. You can also purchase one of their intricately designed tea sets as a gift or souvenir knowing that your “gift gives twice” at this establishment.
Other than covering the usual main attractions such as My Son Sanctuary and visiting various temples and pagodas, you could also rent a bicycle and spend a day exploring paddy fields in the countryside with your camera. This gives you the chance to see a side of Vietnam that many people only see in photos. An excursion like this would be best done early in the morning or in the evening for good light and cool weather. Many hotels offer bicycle rental services for as low as RM5 per day.
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If cycling for a whole day sounds like too much effort, spend your day relaxing on An Bang Beach instead. The sand on this beach is known to be cleaner and the water bluer compared to Cua Dai Beach. There are plenty of healthy ecotourism activities to do here including snorkeling diving, and yoga. There are a few massage spas on the beach as well like Aira Hoi An Spa and Ocean Spa Hoi An. Once you’re all pampered and relaxed, dance the night away at Swing Cool Kidz or have a few drinks with friends at the cheapest beer place on An Bang, The Starfish Kitchen.
Seeing that the life of Hoi An was built around the Thu Bon River, a trip to Hoi An wouldn’t be complete without a sunset river cruise on an eco-friendly paddle boat. Boat rides usually cost about RM15 including a rower, starting from the iconic Japanese Bridge which was built in 1719 to connect the Chinese and Japanese quarters. This is one the best ways to wind down after a long day (if dancing through the night isn’t your cup of tea) and appreciate the tranquillity and simplicity that gives Hoi An its magic.