So much has changed since the last time we were here. Parts of the city are unrecognizable and there are ten times more cars, vans and large tour buses on the narrow roads.
The highway leading into Hoi An from Da Nang has been updated and the city of Da Nang is in the process of being built up with ocean front condominiums and high rise buildings. Updated bridges have been built with a modern yellow ark design.
The secret is out and now visitors are flocking here by the bus loads. The one thing that hasn’t changed is the tailors. Hoi An is the place to have clothing tailored for prices less than buying a new outfit at home. Hoi An is filled with tailor shops and the competition is stiff. Thanks to social media some places are more well known than others. Women set up shop along the curbs selling fresh vegetables and herbs outside of the market in Old Town.
We chose 76 Tailors to have a pair of sports pants made. At first glance the tailor shops look like a store selling already made clothing but those are usually samples and when you pick the style you like the owner starts taking measurements on the spot. The tailors welcome pictures or the actual clothing you would like duplicated. Prices range on the type of material chosen. For example if you requested a silk dress with lining that would be more expensive than a rayon dress without. Its up to the buyer and how much they are willing to spend. My last visit years ago, I had a shirt tailor made and didn’t splurge on great material. I was just excited to have a tailor made shirt. When I returned back to the United States the shirt’s quality didn’t seem as great as it did when I was in Hoi An. This year I am very aware of that and set my expectations lower. The pants we had made were $15.00 a pair. Once I put them on and bent over the entire back seam split open. After returning them to be fixed, the entire process cost me more in time than the pants were worth.
Old Town Hoi An, the city’s historic district wrapped around canals of rivers and french inspired buildings. In 1999, the old town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
One of the most famous landmarks is the old Japanese Bridge, that dates back to the 16th-17th century. Years before it was free to walk on and across but now a small fee of $5.00 (USD) is charged to access any historical sites within the old town. The bridge is covered and was built by the Japanese. This is the only known covered bridge with a Buddhist temple attached to one side.
Granted prices in Vietnam are lower than anywhere we’ve visited so far, we still find ourselves spending about the same amount as anywhere else. Tipping one and two dollars feels like we are giving five and tens. This is a very touristy town and the locals are very aware that foreigners have big money to spend.
An Bang Beach has a sprawling sandy shore lined with restaurants and umbrella chairs to sit, relax and enjoy the day. All they ask for in return is to buy a drink or food from their restaurant. I was so surprised to see such a beautiful beach full of mostly tourists spending the day sunbathing, eating and swimming in the warm ocean. For a while it felt like we were miles away from Hoi An. We chose a the nicest restaurant because they had the best chairs and the restaurant reminded us of home catering mostly to westerners. Yes the prices were a little higher but still incredibly low compared to American prices.
One thing Vietnamese women take seriously is sun exposure. Most (if not all) of the Vietnamese women I spoke to did not want their skin exposed to the sun. They have a fear of getting darker skin. This fear runs deeper than getting cancer, it symbolizes beauty. Having white skin symbolizes something beautiful to the women of Vietnam. They will go to great lengths to cover their skin even in extreme heat.
This doesn’t surprise me. Many women in Thailand and Cambodia feel the same. I personally think the women are beautiful with brown skin. This only amazes me because its so hot outside I could not imagine having on layers of clothing with an added face mask. Some women have a long apron type garment to cover their legs on a motorbike if they are wearing a skirt.
At exactly 3:00pm the locals arrive and set up mats and pop up grilling stations selling fresh seafood starting around sunset. Their prices are at least 70% less than the restaurants there. This didn’t bother us because by the time they set up, we were ready to go. The face of the beach changes from tourists to locals. Locals spend time on the beach around sundown as a gathering place after work and school. From 5pm-7pm the beach is full of families, children and friends having light snacks and swimming in the ocean. A couple of hours later everyone goes home to have dinner and prepare for work the next day. The city has an agreement with the businesses allowing the locals to set up along the businesses umbrellas starting at 3pm, around 2:50pm is when the vendors start moving in close and the psychological game begins. The vendor essentially crowds the person sitting in the front row umbrella until they leave. Some tourist hold their ground and some just give up. Either way, the local wins.
Basket boats are made of bamboo and sealed with coconut oil & tar or varnish. These boats can carry several people and have been used for centuries in Vietnam. Vietnam is one of the few places that still use basket boats. They were lined along the shore. When fisherman anchor their boats away from the shore, a basket boat is used to transport the men to shore. Tourists can also pay a small fee and ride along in a basket boat for fun.
We chose to stay away from the old town and all of the tourists. The Hoi An Chic hotel is located within a local neighborhood overlooking rice fields and small farms surrounded by local homes. Aside from the location the property offered great amenities including a shuttle to and from the old town and a private beach area. We took this into town at night for dinner and used the complimentary bikes in the day.
Another great amenity of the Hoi An Chic were the free tours. We signed up for the organic farm tour and really kind employee named Chinh was our guide. We rode bikes through local rice fields and stopped at the only organic garden in Hoi An. Even though farming is traditional in Vietnam, organic farming cost more and takes longer to produce. The owners are fourth generation farmers in Hoi An and they take pride in their garden. They have agreed to participate in the day tour in hopes to make a little money (in tips) and show other locals it’s profitable to grow organic.
Thinking we were saving money, we chose to take our laundry to a service ourselves. Laundry places are along the streets and the prices start a $1.00/lb of laundry. Doug had a bad feeling about the place we chose. I should have listened to him. When we received our clean clothes the detergent they used smelled like candy. This smell stuck to our clothes even through sweat and long periods of wearing them. This happened once before on Gili Trawangan, we dropped our clothes off to a laundry service (local home) and they came back smelling like a horrific cologne that lasted for months.
Hoi An is also known for colorful lanterns and shops all over have them displayed. They are beautiful, especially when displayed all together. As much as I love seeing them all lit up at night, I have yet to buy one. Aside from the lanterns, every evening women walk around the river selling candles lit in paper holders to buy and place in the river.
The river is full of beautifully lit candles glowing through the box of paper it’s placed in. The only problem is the river host night boat rides and because of the waves the boats cause, most of the paper holders are pushed along the river shore and end up littering the sides of the river. I spoke to a traveler who jogged along the river the next morning and she said it was filled with the paper holders. Littering is something that happens all to often here. While walking along the streets of old town, we noticed many locals throwing trash, plastic bottles, cigarette packs and various other pieces of trash into the streets or on the sidewalks when they were done. I witnessed one guy thrown his empty can of soda into the street and then go sit by a trash can.
One of the locals dishes is called white rose. Known locally as Banh Bao Vac, the name ‘white rose’ was given by the French. White Rose dumplings are a specialty of Hoi An. The rice dumpling is made in the shape of a flower with a filling of shrimp in the center as the bud then topped with crispy fried onions. They are not only beautiful but delicious.
Another known dish is Cao Lau. Cao Lau is made with noodles, pork, and local greens, that is found only in the town of Hội An. To make Cao lau noodles, the rice has to be stone ground and mixed with ash and water. The ash is made with firewood from the Cham Islands, around 19 km from Hội An. The noodles are cut and then cooked three times with firewood. The water to cook the noodles is also special because it only comes from specific wells in Hội An. This is why Cao lầu is a dish that can only be prepared in Hội An.
Eggplant is on every menu in Hoi An. Eggplant served in a clay pot with a sweet brown sauce was my favorite. The eggplant is quartered and baked in a claypot with chili pepper, onions and seasoning creating a gravy once it’s done. Doug loved the smoked eggplant with a tomato relish topping. The eggplant is fire roasted, peeled and then topped with cooked tomatoes, onion and seasonings.
My favorite thing to eat in a hurry (or not) is a bahn mi sandwich. Bahn Mi means “sandwich” in Vietnamese. The traditional bahn mi has pate, pork, cilantro, pickled radish, raw jalapeño pepper, mayonnaise and spicy pepper sauce on a freshly baked french baguette. The prices range from .80 cents to $1.00 (USD) for foreigners. Locals pay less for food from street vendors (rightfully so). Hoi An is known for two of the best places to buy them. The first being made famous by Anthony Bourdain is called Banh Mi Phuong. This is a small storefront/restaurant in the old quarter of Hoi An. We found it by the line of people waiting to order their sandwiches. Besides the traditional bahn mi, other sandwiches were available (all served on a fresh baguette). I have to admit this was a great bahn mi sandwich and I can understand why there is a line from opening to closing.
The second place is Madam Khanh aka the bahn mi queen. She has been making bahn mi for decades and locals and travelers both swear hers is the best of Vietnam let alone Hoi An. I couldn’t wait to try her place because we heard the queen herself still makes the sandwiches personally. We were so excited to meet the queen and try her sandwich. The first time we tried Madam Khanh her daughter was working the stand. The sandwich was incredible. Unlike her competitor, Madam Khanh used lean pork with hardly any fat and the bread is much crispier on the outside and softer on the inside. The price was slightly lower too. Doug and I looked at each other and both gave Madam Khanh the winning title hands down.
We loved it so much we returned the next day and low and behold there she was! The Queen! She personally made our sandwiches and I can honestly say the sandwich was even better. She either has magic hands or has the balance of the ingredients down pact. I sat there star struck as I ate my bahn mi. When it was all said and done we thanked her, asked for a picture and left. Long live the queen.
Next stop is America the beautiful island of Oahu then onto Maui for some rest and relaxation from traveling.