The beautiful town of Hoi An is somewhere all travellers should have on their itinerary, as it truly is something special. Lined with yellow walls and foliage, the old town is adorned with lanterns, which are sent down the river every night to create the most magical scene. As beautiful as it is in the day, for this reason Hoi An is somewhere that you have to see at night! For a few hours each night , boats carrying large lanterns travel down the river passing under the town’s main bridge, with restaurants and market stalls lining either side of the river – all also lit up with lanterns and lights. Whilst this tradition is the main reason tourists visit Hoi An (and there are a lot of them), the town offers so much more to see and do!
We arrived in Hoi An after getting a sleeper bus from Nha Trang. We’d looked at the route along the coast and worked out it would take us 4-5 days of stopping in rural towns and having quite long days driving, so decided that we’d save some time and not drive ourselves. After looking online, we found out that you can send motorbikes from major train stations, so we left Bruce with the freight department, paid 550,000 dong and would meet him in a few days in Danang. Our bus cost us 280,000 dong, so altogether it cost us just over 1 mil – the equivalent to £32. Bargain!
We’d booked to stay in the Yellow House Homestay, so walked there with the hope of an early check in. It was about 8am and we were both half asleep! When we got there we waited for a while in the little reception area, then were told that the price booking.com had given us was cheaper than it should’ve been, so he would try and sort that but the room wouldn’t be ready till 12 when the other guests had left. We’d kind of expected this may be the case, so left our bags there and walked into the centre of town. From the location we were in we walked down the main river, which at this point was wide and still, reflecting the greenery on the other side. It was a beautiful walk, and after about twenty minutes we arrived in the Old Town.
What had been peaceful and tranquil became the organised chaos that we’d grown so used to, as tourists and locals made their way around the hustle and bustle of the market. It was a mix of fresh vegetables, fish and meat combined with stalls selling clothes, hats or souvenirs such as chopsticks. Add to this motorbikes and scooters trying to manoeuvre their way through the crowds – with a lot of beeping!
We decided it was a bit early for this, with us wandering around in what was basically our pyjamas after a few hours of broken sleep. We avoided the main market street and walked back a street from the river, where it was much calmer. Hoi An is also famous for its tailoring, and is known to be one of the best places to have custom suits and clothing made for cheap prices. As we walked through the streets we walked past shop after shop offering tailoring services. There are also lots of coffee shops and smoothie places in the old town, offering a relaxed environment to take a break from shopping.
We were both hungry, so we headed into one of the little restaurants we walked past. By this point it was about 9am, so we were the only ones in there! We sat down next to the cool air of a fan – despite being early the day was already so hot. I wasn’t feeling great so played it safe and ordered chicken & rice, whilst James ordered Cao Lầu, a local dish in Hoi An. I’d read that Hoi An is Vietnam’s food capital, and when it came out I wish I’d ordered it! It’s noodles, pork, beansprouts, lettuce and crispy stuff on the top. It doesn’t sound like anything special, but it was so good! The noodles aren’t like any we’d had before, as they’re thick and meaty with a different texture to them. They were amazing! My meal was also really good – with the chicken and vegetables cooked in a really yummy sauce. We finished our food and got the bill, and the lovely lady who owned the restaurant asked us if we wanted to buy any clothes whilst we were here. James had thought about getting a suit tailored, so mentioned this. The lady then took us to her friends tailors a couple streets back, where we were surrounded by fabrics of every possible colour you could imagine and mannequins with perfectly tailored suits. We had a look around and told them we’d come back another time, there was way too much to take in for someone who’d only had a few hours sleep…
We carried on walking around the yellow walls of the old town, something Hoi An is famous for. Here the clothes shops sell such good quality counterfeits of other brands! It was a shame we didn’t have any space in our luggage, I could’ve gone a bit crazy shopping here! They also have shoe shops with leather boots all made inside – I fell in love with a leopard print pair. We stopped for a drink then headed to see the Japanese bridge as they weren’t charging to cross it as it was so early.
We then went to the main bridge in the town, crossing over the river to the other side of which is full of restaurants. This is where they send all the lanterns down the river at night, so I was excited to see that. We decided we’d come back here for dinner! At this point we got stopped by a lady selling fruit, who asked for a photo. We told her we didn’t want any fruit and she replied saying she didn’t want any money, just a photo. She then handed me her fruit and stood with me for a photo, I was surprised at how heavy the fruit was! After this she then asked us to buy fruit again, and I felt bad but said no.. I guess you can’t blame her for trying. Please excuse the my outfit, I’d spent the last 12 hours in it on a bus trying to sleep!
After exploring the streets of Hoi An a little more, we headed back to the place we were staying, this time braving walking through the market to have a look. There was so much, you could literally buy anything you needed!
We arrived back at around 12, so waited in the reception. The man was sat opposite, but didn’t tell us the room was ready yet so we waited and I read my book. After about half an hour or so decided to have a look for somewhere else on booking.com, and found a place a lot closer to the centre for not much more. The man was on his phone trying to calling booking.com, which must’ve been about the price. We decided to leave and go stay at the other place, as it would’ve been nice to have been a bit closer to town anyway! After walking for a while we jumped in a taxi and got to The Sun Homestay, where we were checked in and shown to a room straight away. The room here had everything we needed, but the best thing was it had the comfiest bed we’d stayed in for the entire trip! It was a dream. All the beds so far had been really hard or just bad/old mattresses, so this was such a treat for us. We had a shower and got into bed for a nap, which ended up being a few hours long… As I said – we were really tired! Sleeper buses don’t exactly give you a great night’s sleep.
We headed back out into the main part of Hoi An at around five, and after walking the wrong way for a while finally made it into town. People were out on the river with lanterns, and as it got dark more and more lit up the water. The streets and all the restaurants turned on their outside lights, which were also lanterns, so everywhere you looked was lit up like magic. It was incredible! We headed across the bridge to a restaurant where we sat outside upstairs, with views out over the river. Hoi An is also meant to be one of the most romantic cities, and at night you can see why. It’s like something out of a fairy tale!
After dinner and a few drinks we headed through the night market, which is full stalls selling lanterns, food and touristy bits. We refrained from buying anything, but it was nice to have a look! The night market went on for ages, but we didn’t look at the whole thing as we weren’t in the shopping mood.
We went to a few bars after for drinks, which were so cheap! The first place we went we played pool, as this is something I beat James playing in Nha Trang! Unfortunately my luck seemed to have run out, as he beat me 3 games to 1… We then moved on to another place where we got a ‘bucket’ of rum and coke (like a big jar), which was buy 1 get 2 free, 2 shots free and a free shisha. So all of this, cost 140,000 dong! We then headed somewhere else, but left as it was so busy. We’d kinda had enough to drink by this point anyway… We started to walk home, but in the end gave in and got one of the taxi moped men! We wanted some food, so he took us to a little street food stall and waited whilst we ordered, then drove us back. I’m pretty sure I passed out after eating my food, this was the first time we’d drunk spirits since Koh Samui and they’d gone straight to my head!
The next morning we woke up feeling awful! Unsurprising, really. We headed to 41 Cafe for food as it was across from where we were staying. We both ordered the Cao Lầu and a smoothie, for some much needed healthiness! The meal was amazing, and altogether came to 82,000 dong, which was so cheap!
We then hired bicycles for 20,000 dong each from our Homestay and headed out on a bike ride. You can imagine how happy I was when I got given the pastel pink bike! Hoi An is near the coast, so we headed to the beach about 5km away. We cycled along a main road which ran between two rice fields, so took a little detour down a track that ran through the rice field to have a look. It was so peaceful! It was hot but overcast, but even with grey skies the fields were such a bright green.
We stopped to adjust my seat, and as we did something splashed in the water next to us. I didn’t think much of it, until James mentioned it could be a snake. What had been a lovely relaxing bike ride quickly became a mission for me to get back to the main road! Once back to safety, we only cycled for five or so minutes before reaching the beach. There were places to park your bike for 5,000 dong each, but we chose one with toilets and a shower for convenience as we had to change. At first the lady said it was 30,000 each, then 40,000 for two. When we gave her a 100,000 note, she gave us back 80,000. So in the end it only cost us 20,000 for both our bikes!
We headed down to the beach and rented two sun beds under an umbrella for 150,000 dong. We decided to get an umbrella as it had started to rain a little, which we’d gotten very used to! It was only a few drops, but out here it can go from that to a storm in a few seconds, so we thought it best to have some shelter. We were hot and sweaty after our bike ride so ran straight in the sea. Unlike Nha Trang, the sea here in Hoi An was so calm, with no waves at all.
We had a swim around and just relaxed in the water for a while, before heading back to our sun beds to read and dry off. We moved to ones without an umbrella as the sun had come out, to which a man came over and started shouting at us to pay. We explained we’d already paid and just moved, but he was not happy with us and didn’t believe us. Luckily, the lady we’d originally paid for the beds came back and explained to him that we had already paid so we were fine to stay there. Reluctantly he left, but at least we had sorted it out. We got a drink at one of the bars next to the beach before heading back to our hotel, stopping to cycle through some rice fields on the way back. This time I tried not to think about snakes but just enjoy the view!
That night we went for dinner on the opposite side of the river to the night before, closest to our hotel. It was only a small restaurant, but had an upstairs with an amazing view of the river and all the lanterns. We both got steak, which was so covered in garlic butter and was so delicious. Sitting there with a lovely meal looking down at the lanterns on the river below was definitely a pinch-me moment. Hoi An is truly one of the most beautiful, romantic places I’ve ever been.
After dinner we headed back down to the riverside, to really take in the beautiful scenes of all the lanterns on the river. The night before we’d arrived a little later, so had just caught the end of the all the boats heading down the river. Tonight however we’d got down there as things were just getting started, so we got to watch as it got busy and the river was completely lit up. The bridge was rammed with people taking photos or buying lanterns to send down the river themselves. The fact that this is something that happens every night is incredible! So much effort goes in to keeping Hoi An the special place it is.
After heading to the other side of the river we decided to have a walk through the market again, but this time properly look at all the stalls! There was the most incredible array of lanterns, food, jewellery and so much more. We ended up getting some beautiful chopsticks which came in a lovely case for our new flat when we got back to the UK. Seeing as we eat Asian food so often, it felt like a good investment! We then headed to a bar for a game of pool and a couple of drinks, but didn’t stay out late. We’d booked a tour for the next day, so needed to be up early! We’d gone with the Hoi An Eco Coconut Tour, which looked like it offered everything we wanted to do and more!
The next morning, our tour came and picked us up at 8.30am in a minibus with 5 other people. We first headed to the market, where our guide took us round showing each ingredient we’d be using in the cooking class later. She taught us the difference in types of noodles, rice papers, colours of papaya! We learnt a lot of interesting facts about Vietnamese cooking and the ingredients that they use. She also taught us about the noodles used in Cao Lầu. We were told the reason the noodles are so meaty is because Hoi An has something special in the water, meaning they can create this texture.
We then walked down to the river where we met another group and got on a boat. We cruised down the river, which was quiet and tranquil. It was cool to see the different houses that line the river banks, and people getting on with their day to day lives. We drove past people who were on tiny little fishing boats, as well as huge nets stationed at various points. The river got wider and wider until all that was ahead directly in front was the sea. At this point we turned and made our way down one of the smaller subsidiaries.
Here we started to see people in the small, circular fishing boats that they have here. Our boat dropped its anchor and we all climbed into one of the smaller boats, with two in a boat plus the Vietnamese driver/guide. He handed us a classic Vietnamese cone hat to wear each and off we went. He then gave us presents – both a flower ring and a grasshopper ring that had been made with the leaves of the plants around us. He made them so quickly!
We then all stopped in our boats to form a circle around a larger fishing boat, which a man threw a huge net from in a very animated fashion. We all sat and waited in anticipation as he brought it in, but with a sad face he declared ‘nothing!’ to which everyone clapped, entertained by the little show. He did this again, and yet again was unsuccessful in catching anything!
We then rowed down into the narrower parts of the river, where all our boat drivers started spinning our boats around and singing. It was hilarious! We were all holding on for dear life whilst laughing hysterically – these guides were crazy! We rowed up into the grasses of the river, where he tried to fish but was as successful as the man with the huge net before. He gave up after a few minutes, and decided it was time for more presents. This time, he made me a neck tie out of a leaf – very impressive! He tried to fish again, again not getting anything. He then took off my hat and made me a flower crown to wear. I was now completely adorned in leaf jewellery, feeling like some kind of princess of the wilderness. This time when he tried to fish, he successfully caught a crab! He pretended to chuck it at me, much to his own amusement (and James’), before putting it into a little bucket. I’d nearly fallen out the boat jumping back! He gave the bucket to James and we watched this little crab scuttling around trying to escape. The man picked him up out the bucket, waving him in my face before pulling his legs off! Now we had a crab with no legs, I’m not too sure why he did this. He then threw the poor crab back in the water, but he wasn’t going to have much of a life with no legs. This confused me a bit.
Maybe he sensed I was upset about the crab, as he decided I needed more flower jewellery. This time he made me a lovely bracelet! I looked around, and no one else seemed to be this covered in jewellery. Maybe it was because he wasn’t very good at fishing, so cut his losses and focussed on the jewellery making instead. I wasn’t complaining – I’d rather that!
After this we all rowed back down another river, whilst they all sing crazy songs. They’re a big fan of the song ‘Gangnam Style’ over here, so sang that a few times. We honestly hadn’t stopped laughing since getting in the boat! This smaller river turned out to be where we got out the boats and met the bus again. We bid farewell to our hilarious, crazy boat man and thanked him again for all my lovely gifts. We waited about five minutes before the bus arrived to take us to our cooking class.
The group were all taken into a big hut like building, where we had table places all set out with fresh juice – it was so yummy! We took our seats and drank our drinks whilst they explained to us that we’d be learning to cook papaya salad, spring rolls, fish in a clay pot and Vietnamese pancakes. There was a bigger table next to us with all the ingredients and utensils, so we gathered round and took our places. There were six to a table, which was a really nice size group as it meant we all got to chat and knew what we were doing.
Our first task was to grate down papaya and carrot for the papaya salad, using a handheld grater/peeler thing that we’d been taught about in the market earlier that day. For some reason, I really struggled at this. Not a good start! I’ve never been very good at grating or peeling, and in the end the man had to do it for me as I was so slow I was holding up the group. Oops!
Our papaya and carrot was put to one side, and we were all given tomatoes. We were taught how to peel these carefully with a knife, so the skin can then be used as a rose. He made it look incredibly easy, but it really wasn’t! Luckily, everyone struggled with this one. I actually managed to make a wonky looking flower in the end, so did better than most!
We used the skinned tomato to chop and use for the fish, layering it over it in the clay pot. We then chopped up garlic, spring onion and ginger, which we used to season the fish, keeping some to the side. We added some salt and pepper and this was done! The hotpot was put to one side to be cooked, and we moved onto spring rolls.
We used the left-over ginger, garlic and spring onion to add to a mix of pork and prawns. This was the filling for our spring rolls, which we’d soon be making. We were taught to fry this mix in the pan using chopsticks to stir. I’d never used chopsticks in a pan before! This was already smelling so good.
We kept it in the pan till it was cooked through, then we were handed paper to use to make the spring rolls. To make it easier to roll, two spring onion bulbs were put at the top as a starting point. We then put the mixture next to this, and used the onion bulbs to roll it up. The first one was a bit dodgy looking, but the rest actually turned out alright! We fried them in oil in the pans, and laid them to cool before arranging them on the plate with the tomato flower.
Some of the cooked prawn and pork mix was left over, so this was added to the papaya and carrot from earlier to make the papaya salad. We then went back to our other table to eat the papaya salad (served with a peanut sauce) and the spring rolls. If I can say so myself, they were really yummy!
After eating these we returned to our cooking station, where we then learnt to make Vietnamese pancake. A batter was made with a special flour, which we then poured in the pan with some prawns and pork again. On top of these we put bean sprouts, which I always put too many! The man then helped us by folding it for us, as this part was too tricky for us to do ourselves. Even trickier when you put far too many bean sprouts in. Oops. Next was the fun bit – he poured in oil and to properly fry the pancake, it set on fire! We all got a go at doing this each, the flames were huge!
We sat down to eat the pancakes, which were served with the fish clay pot we’d made earlier, rice and morning glory. They were so good! By this point though we were all so full – there had been enough food for a few meals, not just the one!
Once we were finished we all got back on the bus and which dropped us back at our hotel. I’d seriously recommend the Coconut Eco Tour to anyone visiting Hoi An – it was incredible! We got to do so much packed into one morning, and had a great time doing it. Everyone in our group was really friendly, the guides were great fun and it was worth the money 100%. We had a few hours before our taxi to Danang, so we walked into town and did a bit of shopping! We’d had our eye on a few bits over the past few days, so went on a big haggling mission to get them at the cheapest possible price. We also got ourselves a lantern, so we could bring a little bit of Hoi An’s magic back with us to the UK! It was nice to have one last wander around before leaving, as the Old Town was so beautiful. We walked back to our hotel happy with our purchases after a successful day of shopping and cooking. We’d managed to fit so much in and it was only about 4pm!
Our accommodation had booked us a taxi to Danang, as it was only about a half an hour drive away from Hoi An. We loaded our stuff into the car and left Hoi An, excited to get Bruce (our bike) back and see a new place. We’d had an amazing time in Hoi An – even if it was full of tourists it didn’t ruin the magic of the town. It was so different to any other place we’d been in Vietnam, so is definitely somewhere to visit. I think I’d say it was one of my favourite places we’d been! Plus, the Cao Lau had become one of our favourite foods in Vietnam – it was a shame it’s only available in Hoi An! Maybe that made it just that bit more special as a place. An 11/10 for us!
Have you been to Hoi An? Let me know!
Charlotte Rick x
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