A Can’t Miss Destination in Vietnam: Hoi An

by Brian Carroll on March 6, 2013

Post image for A Can’t Miss Destination in Vietnam:  Hoi An Out of all the places I was able to visit in Vietnam, I'd say that Hoi An was my favorite. While it is best known across the world as a destination to buy tailored clothes (with over 300 such shops around), I found that the city itself offered much more. The Lantern Festival: In addition to clothes, the city of Hoi An is well-known for silk lanterns. Many stores sell them, classes exist where you can make them and the quaint old city is decorated with hundreds of them overhanging the streets. The hanging lanterns alone give the town a very romantic feel when walking the streets at night, which would make it a great destination for any couple (or two Brians for that matter). While all of this exists throughout the year, additionally, on the 14th day of the Chinese lunar calendar in each month, the city celebrates with a Lantern Festival. Now while we were actually not there during this period of time, we were there during the Chinese New Year, and it so happened that because of this, we were able to catch the Lantern Festival at its peak.

Something just comes across odd with this lantern. A snake (with eyelashes!), in a questionable sailor outfit, holding a machine gun. Hmm.

The Lantern Festival is essentially a festival of lights that is focused along the main river that goes through town. Similar to Christmas time with houses decorated with lights, people come out in full force to see life-size lanterns created in all different shapes that are placed throughout the town. Moreover, at night time, you can purchase for less than $1, individual “floating lanterns” (they reminded me of chinese take-away boxes with a candle lit in them) in which you place them in the river and make a wish. What you get is a river filled with these floating lanterns that further emphasizes the unique feel of the town during this period. I only wish I knew how to take good night photography to fully capture it, but here are a couple videos that might give you a sense of it, better yet, plan a trip to check it out yourself, you won't regret it! VIDEO 1: VIDEO 2: The Old City Atmosphere & the Nearby Contrasts in Scenery: Unlike other destinations within Southeast Asia, Hoi An has not been overrun by appeasing the needs of your broke backpacker. The city does not really offer hostels in a traditional sense (more guesthouses) and while it is not hard to find a drink, it does not have the wild bar scenes that are famous in so many regional spots. But in my opinion, this is great and helps Hoi An maintain a unique personality all its own.

Streets of Hoi An

Adding to the atmosphere, outside of the Chinese New Year, the Old City area of Hoi An does not allow motorbikes to roam, which makes it a very pleasant area to aimlessly meander the streets by foot.   The old city center can easily be walked within twenty to thirty minutes in total.  Furthermore, the town holds on to some of its roots with attractive French Colonial architecture running along the river that separates the city in two.  

Rice Fields and Water Buffaloes. No big deal.

If you venture outside of the city just 20 minutes, you will find additional contrasts in scenery. It is often true that using personal transportation in many spots of Vietnam can be a dangerous proposition, but around Hoi An, it is very feasible to rent bicycles for the day and head to the nearby beach, which Brian and I did. While we had some minor “detours” on our way to the beach, biking into quiet neighborhoods and rice fields with lounging water buffaloes, it was a pleasant way to see the countryside before reaching the sand. Ultimately, when we got to the beach, we simply relaxed and had a few beers. I found the beaches here to be a bit more pleasant than those of Nha Trang, though they weren't necessarily anything that were going to take your breath away. All that said, when you're at a beach, you really don't have too much room to complain.

Our food bill was over 400,000 dong!

The Food: I enjoyed the food most in Hoi An as well. While the Vietnamese food was well-priced and offered excellent options, if you were itching for a pizza or burger (which I was), there were very good spots as well. You could be content eating quality food anywhere from $2 - $10.  Some favorites include the Crispy Wontons, Cao Lao and White Roses.  And to top it off, you could get a glass of fresh beer for the equivalent of $.20. That's 5 beers for $1. Unbelievable.

Our last night in Hoi An

The People (our friend's included): Throughout our time interacting with the local Vietnamese, Brian and I found them to be very friendly and speak English quite well. While this made the experience nice, it was also great to reunite with some friends from earlier travels. Two of the girls who were with Brian and I in Nha Trang (Sam & Kristen), caught up with us for a few days in Hoi An. Also, a friend I met from the Netherlands (Jeroen) when I was in Chiang Mai, Thailand, also happened to be in town when we were there. While I'd say we showed them around, to be somewhat truthful, they basically followed Brian and I along during our last day (a full day of shopping), until we had time to relax and grab some food & drinks. It was a great way to wrap up our time in the town. The Shopping: Lastly, we get to the shopping. If you were to look in my closet before I left for this trip, you might say I have a lot of clothes. And I'd have to agree, with the caveat being that I've been the same size for the last 15 years, so over time, things piled up. As I started to pack away my things for this trip, I donated a lot of what had been tucked away in my closet, a fair amount which had been not the ideal fit to my long frame – long sleeve shirts have always been an issue. So I'm not going to lie, when I knew I was going to be visiting a spot where I could get properly fit clothes, I made it a point to spend some time shopping there. While I find shopping exhausting (and this case was no different), I prefer to do it all in large spurts, and this was one going to be one of those spurts. My buddy Brian though, was not fully on board, but agreed to tag along...

One of our shops of choice

Shopping in Hoi An is like walking through a minefield. You hope you'll make it through unscathed, but you really just don't know. With the tailor industry being the foundation for the town, everyone seems to be in the game – and not everyone is equally good (most of the time though, the stores are simply fronts for sending the clothes to be made at the same sewing shops). Figuring out where to go in itself is tough. Guesthouses often get commissions and as such, can definitely steer you astray for their benefit. Ultimately, my decisions for picking shops came from a combination of reviews on TripAdvisor, forum posts and feedback from a friendly French local that we ended up running into numerous times in town. My shopping philosophy was focused on diversifying my risk so that hopefully I would find at least one, but hopefully a couple good spots where I could order additional clothes from as needed in the future.

Our salesman had a BIG crush on Brian

The first time I walked into one of these places though, I have to admit, I was overwhelmed. There were so many colors, patterns and fabrics and trying to picture any sort of clothes made out of these was tough to envision. Then there were all the details that went with it – the pockets, the buttons, the collars...Ah!!! My head was ready to explode. As often times is the case with me in situations like this, to be comfortable with my decision, I needed to first take some time to invest in some research. So while my buddy Brian spent the afternoon committing to four or so different items, I barely selected one over a few hours time. But after a morning looking at items I liked online and understanding the subtleties of suits (like the differences in lapels – yes, lapels...), I got myself comfortable and confident with being able to walk into one of these tailors and tell them what I wanted. In all, I bought items from five different spots that summed to: two suits and about 10 shirts -yeah, a lot of clothes I know. Oh, and two pairs of custom made shoes because as Ron Burgundy might say “When in Rome.” And my buddy Brian, who initially came in laughing at my interest in visiting the tailors was not able to escape unscathed, leaving with a variety of clothes for himself and handbags and other gifts for friends. Up until that point, I had limited what I bought as I packed really light, but we had so much that we both chipped in to buy a separate bag to carry it all, which we'd end up lugging around for the duration of our trip. So with our luggage and new found extra bag in tow, Brian and I caught our last flight within Vietnam, which would have us landing in Hanoi and ultimately visiting the world famous Halong Bay.

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