Of all the places I visited in Vietnam on my two-week country tour, my absolute favorite city was Hoi An. It is significantly smaller and more user friendly than the likes of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, and it’s not nearly as touristy or tacky as Nha Trang. Granted, it’s gaining popularity with travelers, so it’s probably lost some of its local charm to foreign influences over the years, but I still found it to be an interesting, charming and fun place to visit.
The city’s Old Town spans just a few blocks in each direction, and the entire area is walkable or accessible by bike. I visited Hoi An in the middle of August, and the daytime temperatures were high, especially when combined with humidity that made my hair curly (something that has never, ever happened before). As a result, the city woke up early (myself included, thanks to a noisy rooster outside my window), hibernated during the hottest hours of the day and came out to play once the sun set.
So what was it about Hoi An that appealed to me? Well, in addition to its accessibility (and lack of scary traffic), I found the following to be the highlights of my stay:
A Bustling Marketplace
Along the river’s edge was a market that was particularly busy in the morning hours. I happened upon it by accident my first morning there and spent the better part of an hour wandering among the tarp-covered stalls. I wasn’t interested in buying anything, but I love walking through markets, checking out the local produce and brand name knock offs.
Like many markets in the world, this one was grouped by product type. Everyone selling noodles was in one row, those selling spices sat together and seafood was strategically placed near the water. I was in town on a holiday (though I’m not sure which one), so there were a bunch of people selling live chickens and geese as well.
Most of the people selling goods were women, and I didn’t get the impression that many of them spoke English. If you’re interested in buying something at the Hoi An market, make sure you carry a pen and paper for price negotiation.
I had read that Hoi An has the best food in Vietnam and, after my first meal, I completely agreed with the sentiment. For some reason, the food in Hoi An seemed much fresher than in other parts of the country, and I absolutely loved the fruit juice and smoothies in the city.
While there, I ate at a few different dining establishments, and all of them were outstanding, so it must be a city thing, not just a restaurant thing. My favorite discoveries were the white roses and spring rolls, both wrapped in soft white rice paper. In the summer heat, these light appetizers were a good substitute for an entire meal.
One of the things I did in Hoi An was take a cooking class. I’m not a cook by nature, so I was an utter and complete failure, but luckily the people running the cooking school helped me out so at least my food was edible even if it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing. I’m not sure if there are cooking schools in other parts of Vietnam, but given the fact that the food in Hoi An is a big draw, it makes sense to me that people like to take cooking classes when visiting the city.
One afternoon, as I was walking the streets of Hoi An (which I never tired of, by the way, even though I walked many of them several times), I happened upon Reaching Out, which is a fair trade gift shop. There are lots of handicraft and curio shops in Hoi An, so I’m not sure what drew me to this one, but I was glad I stopped in.
It turns out that Reaching Out, which was established in 2000, is both a socially responsible organization and handicraft shop in which all of the items are made by disabled artists. The organization does not accept donations; instead, it trains disabled Vietnamese in handicrafts ranging from weaving and needlework to jewelry making. These people are then given the liberty to create their own crafts and, in return, receive ongoing training, a meal allowance, health insurance and a monthly wage.
One of the great things about visiting Reaching Out was that I was able to walk through the workshop, where many of the artisans were at work. In fact, I bought a pendant that was made by one of the jewelry makers I saw working on a different piece.
It should be noted that, on my way to the Cu Chi Tunnels, we stopped at another establishment where victims of Agent Orange are trained in crafts, but that felt much more staged to me. I felt at ease walking through Reaching Out, and I felt like the artists were comfortable as well.
Visiting the Tailor
Despite its small size in comparison to other cities in Vietnam, Hoi An has an exceptional number of tailors. In fact, it’s probably what the city is best known for. There are rows upon rows of tailors throughout the city, all of which display examples of their products with letters of praise written by previous customers pinned to them. Regardless of what you’d like to have made—jackets, suits, shirts, scarves, skirts—you can have it made in any fabric and any color in Hoi An.
While I was there, I decided to have two pairs of knicker-esque airplane lounge pants made, something I based off of a pair of pajama pants but aren’t commercially made. I quickly learned that you have to find a tailor that you like and bargain hard for the price you want, but you also get what you pay for. Clothes aren’t necessarily cheap, but you can have anything made exactly to your needs, which is the real draw of having them made in Hoi An. Turnaround time is exceptionally fast. If necessary, chances are you can put in an order and have a fitting in the morning and have your new clothes by the evening. I wasn’t immediately happy with the quality of my clothes, so I took them back and had them fixed, which wasn’t a problem at all.
There is a fabric market near the city’s main market, and rumor has it that you can get clothes cheaper there, but I found it a bit maddening. Women were hustling me and one literally chased me around the market trying to thread my eyebrows. I opted instead to have my clothes made at one of the hundreds of actual shops lining the street.
Maybe it was Hoi An’s small size or innate charm that let me really look at it, but I found the city to be particularly colorful. The temples were beautiful, the storefronts were welcoming and everything was incredibly vibrant. During the day, it was the piles of fabric, multi-colored boats and various trinkets at the market that caught my eye. At night, things became even more brilliant, as large lanterns were lit up and a rose-colored hue fell over the stores when the lamps were turned on.
There is something about the color of a place that makes it much more appealing to me. Gray, drab settings have their place, but a variety of hues, like those found in Hoi An, make me feel like certain places have more life than others. Perhaps this was one of the reasons I liked Hoi An so much.