History comes to life in Central Vietnam.
By Nicholas Barancyk, Photos by Hannah McGinty
Those who’ve visited Vietnam will say it’s loud in every sense of the word: loud sounds, loud smells and loud sights. The country is a visceral experience that pulls visitors into the moment and carries them along its crests and troughs of stimulation.
Maybe it’s this change, this flux of energy, that seduces travelers to the rice-basket country. In those energetic peaks, the hum of life consumes visitors like an amoeba, while the lows are shockingly tranquil and reflective. Nowhere else in the country epitomizes that serenity like the French-colonial town of Hoi An, Vietnam.
Finding home base
There’re many affordable four-star hotels in town, but for a truly authentic experience, book a room at Vinh Hung 1 Heritage Hotel. Originally a Chinese merchant’s home, the 200-year-old structure is built in the classic Hoi An style, with high Japanese ceilings, wooden columns inscribed with Chinese characters and dark wooden furniture. The rooms have been retrofitted with modern amenities that complement the wooden interior in a way that is nothing short of elegant.
What’s to see?
That’s a question that never comes to mind once you’re here. From the 400-year-old Japanese bridge to the Chinese temples where locals play mahjong, the history here is rich and alive. Stop by the old Tan Ky House for a brief lesson about architecture, embroidery and tea in this two-century-old home. There are many more historic buildings along the way, but just strolling the cobbled streets and popping into boutiques can fill a whole day.
Speaking of boutiques
If you’re a recovering shopaholic, this is not the place for you. Hoi An is the tailoring capital of Vietnam. If that doesn’t mean much to you, take a peek at the manufacturing tab on some of your clothes. Everything from leather bags, leather shoes and, of course, clothing, can be custom tailored to fit your desires.
Bao Diep is a standout for apparel. The tailors here are masters of their craft. Merely show them a picture on Pinterest and they’ll have recreated it the next day. Do you want that green Anthropologie sundress but with stripes and at a quarter of the price? No problem.
If you’re more in the market for a new bag or shoes, Friendly Leather Bags is easily the No. 1 place in town. The owner makes truly beautiful satchels, purses, camera bags and more. Choose from a massive array of leathers and augment with colored linings. A zipper here, a pocket there, everything is customizable, but the most shocking part is the low price.
Sand, soaks and submarine sandwiches
After you’re fitted for a new wardrobe, grab some lunch at Madam Khanh, the loving and accurately titled banh mi queen. The long list of Vietnamese subs may look intimidating, but anything on the menu is sure to hit the spot. The pork, in particular, is a favorite.
From here, take a 4-mile bike ride to the best beaches in the country or book an appointment with one of the many luxury spas in town. An Bang Beach is the spot for white sand, watersports and open-air bars, while La Luna Spa is a treat, with herbal-tea soaks, exfoliating scrubs and Vietnamese massage.
When evening hunger strikes, the best place to be is Morning Glory Restaurant. The chef, Madame Vy, specializes in traditional Vietnamese cuisine, including dumplings and morning glory fried with garlic. With a view of the illumined river at night, the atmosphere is hard to beat.
Hoi An after dark
Vietnam, like much of Asia, has perfected the welcoming of night. When the sun sets in Hoi An, visitors are transported back to a time when French ships and Chinese junk ships called into port. Night markets bloom on the streets with sizzling street fare, bamboo crafts and street performers. Paper lanterns overhead color the roads while tourists and locals float more lights down the river. The whole experience rocks visitors into a state of reverie.
Whether visiting for a few days or a few weeks, Hoi An is sure to seduce, lingering in the mind like an Oriental fairytale.