I should begin with the fact that Hoi An was my favorite stop on the initial Imprint Vibrant Vietnam tour back in 2015. Halong Bay was more spectacular, but Hoi An has that great cultural vibe I’m come to love in my travels. Its hard to define and articulate, but its easy to identify when you experience it. For me, that makes Hoi An Vietnam’s unofficial cultural capital. From my pre-tour research it was obvious there would be lots to see and do in Hoi An, so the tour tarried for 3 nights.
Hoi An’s historic core is very charming. As a long time trading city the architecture is of eclectic origins. There are Chinese, Japanese, Cham, and even European-style buildings, giving the town an international feel.
Then there is the shopping. Anyone who knows me knows I am not a shopper. But Hoi An is the tailoring capital of the country and getting quality clothes custom tailored is easy and inexpensive. I succumbed to the lure and got a bunch of new travel clothes made. It was equally fun to shop with my daughter Maia for dresses, shoes, and a jacket. All were custom fitted, great values, and will be unique back in Seattle circles – very important for a 16-year old.
Much like Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, Hoi An is a center of cooking schools. There are dozens to choose from. Most offer pickup from your hotel, a market tour which includes selecting and purchasing your ingredients, hands on training in preparation of several local dishes, instruction in decorative vegetable or fruit carving, and then the enjoyment of consuming your creations for lunch or dinner. I organized a class for those tour members who were interested and they reported a genuinely wonderful experience. Their “class” uniquely included a bike ride through a couple villages to the local market. The instruction was top rate, the English good, and the experience fantastic.
It would be hard to say that any one town has the best food in Vietnam because the food was universally fresh, creative, unique, and delicious. But it did seem like Hoi An has an embarrassment of culinary riches. We had two excellent organized meals and our free time choices were also successful. But the edible highlight was the great Banh Mi sandwich shop our Vietnamese guide Bon took our group to. Famous all over Vietnam, our travelers confirmed the reputation was well earned and in no danger of falling off any time soon. The sandwiches were simple (no choices), fresh (including the bread), cheap, and immense! Best value meal on the tour!
We made one short but worthwhile excursion from Hoi An. We journeyed to the nearby ruins of My Son, one-time capital of the Cham civilization. While not the most spectacular ruins in Southeast Asia, the Cham remains were nonetheless worthwhile. An hour’s drive brought us to an impressive bridge where our bus left us and we proceeded on foot. The Champa kings built temples, tombs, and monuments here from the 4th to 18th century. The structures that remain are intricately carved from a red sandstone. I was put in mind of Banteay Srie at Angkor. Like there, the details are important. The buildings are covered with carvings of gods, priests, sacred animals, and mythical battles. We were able to enter several buildings and photograph to our heart’s content. The humid, tropical air of central Vietnam softened the light for photographs even at mid-morning. One last bonus experience awaited us when we began our return to the bus. Under a pavilion, ancient Cham music and dance are performed. It was quite good. Usually performances that are provided free tend to be cheesy and touristy. But I found this performance quite compelling. We saw several dances and heard at least 3 styles of music. One performer, playing a rudimentary clarinet-type of horn impressed us all by playing a single note for several minutes without interruption. Obviously he had perfected a technique of breathing in and blowing out at the same time, allowing him to hold the single note an impossibly long time. After the performance we boarded our bus and returned to more relaxing in Hoi An.
One last indulgence that Hoi An provides is massage. I don’t think the massage is special or unique, but it was readily available and inexpensive. All in all, tied off with the ribbon of a beautiful hotel with a relaxing swimming pool area, our 3 days in Hoi An were well spent.
Imprint Tours has a group visiting Vietnam right now with colleagues Sarah Murdoch and Trish Feaster. Follow their adventures on FB, Twitter, and/or Instagram: thetravelphile and adventureswithsarahm