If you fancy upgrading your wardrobe with shiny new threads, Hoi An is the place. Every other shop in this small, perfectly formed central Vietnamese town belongs to a tailor who will happily whip up a pair of slinky pyjamas or a silk kimono (‘made-to-measure, Visa or Mastercard’). It will be made from the fruit of locally bred silkworms and, with luck, will fit perfectly and carry no size tag.
This fact center and Unesco World Heritage Site has long been a class act. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was an international port called Faifo swarming with Chinese and Japanese merchants. Today, the exotic trader influence shines by in the shrines, silk shops, bridges and quaint tile-roofed wooden houses.
Because many of the downtown streets are closed to cars and already motorcycles on some days, they are great for a wander. Although most shops target tourists, unusually for Vietnam, much of the town has been conserved. A heritage time capsule, this living museum of Vietnamese culture offers visitors the peacefulness many need as an antidote to the mania of the country’s cities, and from their lives back home.
The limited development that has been allowed has unfolded sympathetically, resulting in a minimum of tower blocks and karaoke parlours and a general without of tat and tack. It feels “boutiquey” instead of “souveniry”, to echo one observer.
When you tire of the lanterns, kites and looms, there is no need to pack up and leave. Just beyond the fringes of this most picturesque of towns, you will find plenty of momentous attractions, if little in the way of golf, although the area has five world-class courses in the pipeline.
Tempted? Hoi An is just down the road and is far quieter than Hanoi. Instead of honking horns and revving motorbikes, the common sounds are whirring sewing machines, clinking chisels and softly shuffling flip-flops topped by sibilantly humming voices.
Give in to the temptation to fall into a trance, but try to break out of it when you take a taxi, as you are nevertheless in the most commercial of countries. Confirm the cost and destination. Otherwise, expect to arrive at the wrong hotel, to be charged way too much and then to be stung for extras, such as for having too many shopping bags or for any other reason your driver can concoct, such as being a large person, or your belt causing use-and-tear on the upholstery.
Finally, ensure you have plenty of traveller’s cheques or stacks of cash. The reason: as in much of Vietnam, the ATMs have the distressingly capricious habit of, like casino one arm bandits, dispensing cash at random intervals or not at all.
For wireless internet access on what some Vietnamese call your ‘toplap’, try the Hai Scout cafe at 111 Tran Phu Street. Alternatively, try another old quarter stalwart, the chic and bare-bones Art Cafe at 30 Thai Hoc Street, which is a good place to relax and soak up Hoi An’s abundant air. “It nice,” as the sign says.
Simon Ramsden lists the top ten attractions in or near a town with four UNESCO World Heritage sites within easy reach:
1. Japanese Covered Bridge
Surprisingly short and stocky, Hoi An’s most famous landmark has a tall story behind it. The story begins with a monster called Cu, which was so big it had its head in India and its tail in Japan. The products of its nether regions, which are located over Vietnam, have been credited with most of what is good, and bad, in the country’s history.
In the 1590s a covered bridge was built in Hoi An to link the Japanese side of town with the Chinese quarter. According to the story, because the bridge covering the weakest part of the monster, the pressure killed it. Hence the shrine of atonement halfway across.
As if that legend were not strange enough, one entrance is guarded by a pair of monkeys and the other by a pair of dogs.
2. Hoi An Harbour
To see the harbour at its most magical, rise at daybreak and go to the bridge. A guide will take you out on a wood-boards-and-peeling-paint ferry for a fresh, laid-back take on the town. Bobbing and lolling around, you may feel that you have stepped back in time to the age of Marco Polo.
3. Tran Family Worship House
Ringed by a garden and high fences, the Old Town house could more precisely be described by a bourgeois information you are nevertheless not meant to use. Infused by Chinese and Japanese influences, the temple, sorry house, was constructed by a mandarin named Tran Tu Nhac.
Intriguingly designed, it splits into the main worship part and an annex for family and guests. The worship hall has three doors, each for a different kind of visitor.
The left door is for men, the right for women. The middle door, for the grandparents, is opened during the Tet new year festival and on other celebratory days. If the place feels too stiff for your taste, try Phuc Kien Pagoda – the assembly hall-cum-temple for Chinese from the Fujian province who worship the Fujian god Tien Hau.
4. Cargo Club Restaurant and Patisserie
One of the joys of Hoi An is the eccentric English displayed on menus. Think “grilled tofu with grass” and “banana pancake with bile honey”.
Set in an ancient, two-storey shophouse on one of Hoi An’s liveliest streets, the Cargo Club at 107-109 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street serves up a few linguistic oddities of its own, including ‘alsatian baguette’.
Nonetheless, the food is dependably delicious and different. The repertoire includes everything from spicy seafood noodle soup to roasted fennel and goat cheese salad. Adding to the allurement, the club has chic dark wood decor and a balcony that commands sweeping views of the harbour.
To get so close to the water that you could drink it, try Citronella Cafe at 5 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. But stick to the bottled water. For the purest water you can find, visit any of the stalls and cafes that sell green coconuts, where the vendor will hack one open for you with a machete. The coconut is free, but expect to pay for the straw to suck the juice out with.
5. Zen Spa
established to promote traditional Vietnamese therapy, Zen Spa (zenspa.com.vn) has two local branches. One, at the Hoi An Hotel, is right in the heart of town. The other, at the Hoi An Beach Resort is further out, by the seaside. Pampering sets that come under the Zen Spa brand include facials, foot treatments, body scrubs, Pearl of Asia (incorporating exotic Thanh Long or ‘dragon fruit’), Heaven and Earth (gentle body scrub with a great coconut aroma), The Five Elements (‘fresh herbals and silver coins with ginger wine’) and Forever Together (‘fresh leaves and herbs’). Different.
6. Cua Dai Beach
So much appears in print about Hoi An’s old quarter that the visitor may forget that the town lies beside the South China Sea. Fringed with palm trees, Hoi An’s beach, Cua Dai, boasts clean white sand that stretches all the way to Danang and is short on hawkers: a blessing in a country where you are far too often assailed with the need “You, buy my things.”
7. Marble Mountains
These mountains are named after the crystalline metamorphic limestone from which they formed. Blessed with soaring, incense-filled caves and pagodas, the Marble Mountains have seen it all, fulfilling roles at various times in its history as a temple complicate, battleground and hospital. In the latter of these roles injured Vietcong would convalesce whilst watching the ant-link figures of GI’s playing on the beach below, oblivious of the enemy’s presence.
The king of the Nguyen Dynasty, Vietnam’s last ruling family, named the mountains after the five elements that make up the universe: (metal, wood, water, fire and earth). If you want to become at one with the universe, in characteristically business-like Vietnamese fact you will be charged a small entry fee for each of the five elements with which you wish to harmonise.
8. My Son Sanctuary
The Unesco-listed My Son Sanctuary, often described as a Hindu holy land, rests in a far away jungle valley ringed by two mountain ranges. My Son once hosted the religious ceremonies of kings of the Champa dynasty, which ruled southern and central Vietnam from around the 7th century to the 19th. Unfortunately most of it was obliterated by the US Air Force in the war, but what remains is interesting, if only because the Hindu relics seem so out of place this thorough inside Indochina.
The sanctuary consists of a string of semi-ruined but imposing tower-temples built by method that modern architecture does not understand. Often likened to the Cambodian temple complicate Angkor, which the Champa sacked, My Son is a spooky place as awash with butterflies as with the spirits of the dead.
One of the strangest sight you will see in its grounds is the two American bomb casings dating back to a 1963 raid. The casings’ shape echoes the deliberately phallic stone columns distributed around the sanctuary.
9. Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park
The karst (limestone crag) configurations at Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park grow out of 400 million years of geological upheaval and growth. To get a sense of how slowly Phong Nha-Ke Bang evolved, consider that it takes a century for any of the stalactites or stalagmites to grow a single millimetre.
This Unesco site ranks as the oldest major karst area in Asia. It is big, too. Radiating from the border with Lao, Phong Nha-Ke Bang comprises 65 kilometres of caves and underground rivers. An adventure sports playground with a promising future.
10. Cham Museum, Danang.
This museum houses the world’s finest collection of Cham sculpture and is a glorious testament to the artistic achievements of the Kingdom of Champa. The sandstone carvings of gods, beasts and celestial dancing girls possess exquisite beauty and grace and are so liberally displayed as to make it a challenge to fully appreciate this enchanting museum in a single visit.