City of Lanterns, are you shining just for me?

Hoi An has been on my bucket list for quite some time now, as I was really keen to see this one place everyone recommended as ‘probably the best city in Vietnam’. So when I finally got to go there, I ate all the amazing food, visited (yeah, maybe not all) beautiful places inside and around the city and.. well, got some new clothes the traditional way. About all this you can read below.

Some intro

In Vietnamese ‘Hoi An’ translates into ‘peaceful meeting’ as historically the city has been a big port where paths of Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese traders crossed. This mix of three cultures and their peaceful coexistence shows as you stroll around the city. The architecture is a combination of different styles that nonetheless fit together well. The famous Japanese bridge that used to connect Japanese and Chinese communities makes the perfect example of how well the three cultures intermingled in the past.

The food

Before moving to Asia for good, I would mostly associate Vietnamese cousine with pho soup and spring rolls. The me of today, however, absolutely scoffs at this under-appreciation as there is simply so much more to the Vietnamese food and then every city in the country is a totally different, non-replicable story.
There are however some similarities – from North to South you will find Bahn Mi everywhere. What’s Bahn Mi? It’s this one good thing that came out of French colonisation of Vietnam – a mini French baguette, traditionally filled with tons of meat (pate, pork, ham, …), fried eggs, cucumbers, seasonal veggies & fresh herbs. Although the concept is same same wherever you go, there are no two identical Bahn Mi places. One of the most hyped spots for this specialty is Bahn Mi Phuong. The place got its fame thanks to Anthony Bourdain and his ‘No Reservations’, where he proclaims it as the best Bahn Mi in the world. Even as a huge fan of this French-Vietnamese sandwich I have no clue if that was really the best one I had (I still remember very well Huynh Hoa Bakery in Saigon) but for sure it was a damn good one.

Bahn Mi at Bahn Mi Phuong

On the other hand there are two dishes that are Hoi An only and these are Cao Lau and white rose dumplings.
The first one can be found anywhere around the city and as you stroll around you can often see the main ingredient, rice noodles, drying up in huge pots on the streets. However, that is not what makes them special. The secret to Cao Lau is that when the noodles are made, they are soaked in lye solution which is a combination of water from a local well and tree ashes coming from nearby Cham Islands. On top of that, you would typically get grilled pork, some sprouts and fresh herbs, altogether resulting in a delicious dish that tastes like no other noodles I have had anywhere else.

As for the white rose dumplings, apparently there is only one authentic recipe to make these and it is a well-kept family secret. Therefore, the urban legend goes that real Bahn bao Bahn vac (as they are actually called in Vietnamese) can solely be found at White Rose Restaurant and if you encounter them anywhere else in the city, they must have originated from that place anyway.

Sightseeing, we’re sightseeing!

As much as food in Hoi An only would be absolutely worth the trip, I had a bit more on my agenda. For starters, the city in itself is simply beautiful and so has found its way into the UNESCO list as a well-preserved 16th-19th century port. So just wandering on the streets of Hoi An and getting lost there (well, it’s fairly small so limited possibilities on getting really lost) makes you absolutely amazed by how pretty the city is. The wooden houses painted in mostly yellow or blue form the architecture here, omnipresent lanterns add to the charm.

These lanterns used to be simply means for lighting up after the sun went down. As they were very often attached to the outside of houses, they have also became prettier and prettier over time . Nowadays, in their traditional use they have generally become obsolete, although still remain a vivid part of the city’s decor. On a daily basis, lanterns are a common sight in in Hoi An, however, on every 14th day of the moon month the Lantern Festival brings in way more of those lights and after dark, the city turns into a truly magical place.

As beautiful as the city is, it is also quite small, so half a day of strolling around is just enough. That is not an end to attractions of Hoi An though. Positioned right in the middle of Vietnam, it boasts both a shoreline with white sands and mountains covered in green, green forest.

A trip from Hoi An to the nearest beach makes around 4 km and is easily doable by bike. Renting a bike is probably your cheapest way of transportation as it costs merely 30,000 Vietnamese Dong per day (or 1.17 EUR). Whereas, there are no specially designated bike lanes, the roads have an extra half-lane for cars & motor bikes to pull over. This is where you will generally find all the biking enthusiasts, myself included.

Except from being cheap, taking a bike to move around, also means you get to explore the nearby rice fields and the coconut forest by yourself. Whereas there are plenty of organised tours that will take you around in a group where you will probably find yourself being the odd one out among one or two Chinese families, I chose to be my own guide and use my bike to get everywhere.

The rice terraces that you can encounter when cycling around may be no Tegalalang rice terraces in Bali, rather a non-touristy version of them. I would still say it’s worth taking this trip around, as the fields create a beautiful scenery and make the ride very eye-pleasing and relaxing.

Another place where a bike can get you is the Coconut Forest and this is exactly where all the pictures of people floating in basket-like boats come from. Same as other parts of Hoi An, the place has become quite touristy, so in order to avoid the loud crowds I decided to take the trip quite early in the morning. I must say that I partially succeeded although still didn’t manage to skip the part where a local guy puts on very loudly music such as K-Pop or Backstreet Boys and starts swirling around in his boat to the amusement of the visitors. Apart from that, the boat trip is a actually a cool experience, as you can see how people still cultivate coconuts in this submerged forest.

Coconut forest

If you’re not really a beach person, or just like me forgot that the sun in this latitude can actually be strong enough to turn you into a red person, the mountains are the way to go. And Hoi An is actually a wonderful place for some trips higher up, especially that the Hai Van Pass, or the mountainous road that used to be the only land link between Da Nang and Hue is only some hour away from the city.

To get there, you can either rent a scooter, get a car or join one of those coach trips that mass tourists are so fond of. However, I wouldn’t recommend option 3, as those buses only stop at the top of the Pass, from where the view is actually quite average and way better spots can be found on the way up or down.

Once you pass the peak of Hai Van in the direction of Hue, you find yourself at Lang Co Bay which has two big highlights. The first one is definitely Lap An Lagoon that has been almost entirely cut off from the sea and now serves a huge oyster farm. This wonderfully peaceful place is where I found no tourists whatsoever, only local kids who, once spotted an obvious foreigner, came to me with all of their dogs and wanted me to hold all those puppies. And for some unknown to myself reason that’s exactly what i did.

Oyster farm at Lap An Lagoon

Oysters from the farm make their way to nearby restaurants, one of which is located at beach on the other side of this small peninsula. The beach in itself is very tranquil, with tourists hardly making their way there. Therefore, it makes for a great spot to just chill after having crossed the Hai Van Pass and, also, their way of preparing oysters is absolutely top notch (this comes from a person, who’s prior oyster experience involved having to spit them out because of how much I liked the taste).

This tailoring hype

Once you look up Hoi An online, one of the top activities to do here, appears to be getting custom-made clothing. Rumour has it that the suits made in Vietnam wear perfectly, are an ideal fit and you can make yourself any piece of designer clothing for a small fraction of it regular price. Myself, I wasn’t fully convinced if a) I believed it, b) I actually needed something tailored. However, then the monsoon came and cancelled my outdoor plans and so I was convinced that a) and b) were actually untrue.

How the process looks like is that you first give the assistant the idea of what is it that you want and then try to establish exactly how it is supposed to look like (here Google comes in very handy). For me, I think it took us some half an hour to an hour to put this vision for two dresses and a shirt on paper. Once you have an idea, they give you the price and, to my surprise, haggling is next to impossible. What I managed to do, although not without a struggle & to my assistant’s great annoyance, is get only some 12% down (where normally in Vietnam you should go ~60% off the initial price).

When this part is done and you have money issues all set, the fun part comes. To make your clothes fit perfectly, the tailors will take all the possible measures off you, and when I say all it really means ALL. For a plain blue office-like shirt that I got, they have taken note of some 15-20 different measures.

That doesn’t mean however, that your clothes will be made ready based on all of these measures only. Less than 24 hours after I have placed my order, all my pieces of clothing were ready for me to try them on for the first time. And here again, to my astonishment, my tailor found so many little items that could be improved to make the clothes fit even more perfectly. Then, only couple of hours later my order was ready for another try out, the only thing still missing were buttons. However, once I tried on all my three pieces and they were really fitting ideally, it took maximum 3 minutes for all the buttons to be already sewed into my shirt and two button-up dresses(!!!).

With this experience I think I’m way past my initial doubts about custom made clothes from Vietnam. The price (at least for my dresses) did not knock me off with how low it was, but on the other hand I would easily pay for the same type of dress the same amount of money at any of the chain stores.

To wrap it all up..

All in all, Vietnam has been one of my favourite countries to travel, as it is extremely easy to move around whether you go solo or with other people. Also, the food is delicious to the extremes and if you’re looking for a cheap beer, look no further. And then of course, there are the views and the sightseeing, everywhere you go so totally different but always absolutely stunning. And as for Hoi An, it fits entirely into this definition of Vietnam travelling.

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