Hoi An might not be the most beautiful place in the world – but it’s definitely one of those little towns where beautiful stories are tucked at every corner.
Perched along the banks of the Thu Bon River, Hoi An felt like a captivating journey through time. The vibrant energy of lounge bars, Instagram-worthy restaurants, chic cafes, boutique hotels, and souvenir shops adorned with bright lanterns left me in awe. On the flip, I found myself entranced by the sight of weathered ochre buildings boasting clay tiles and green louvered shutters. The black and red courtyards, permeated with the scent of incense, and the majestic golden dragons standing guard at the temples added a touch of enchantment to the experience.
Delving into its historical narrative, I discovered that from the 15th to the 18th centuries, Hoi An played a pivotal role as a major trading port, hosting Chinese and Japanese merchants for months. Later, it underwent a transformation into an administrative center under French rule.
Now recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site, Hoi An boasts over 800 meticulously preserved structures within its Ancient Town. Among these are French colonial houses, Chinese assembly rooms, Japanese pagodas, merchant residences, and shop houses, creating a captivating fusion of Eastern and Western influences.
I shall be honest, 48 hours aren’t enough to explore what this quaint town of Central Vietnam has to offer – but here’s a glimpse of how I managed to experience the madness of Hoi An’s nightlife on a Friday and soaked in the serenity on a laidback Saturday morning
It was around 12:30 in the afternoon when we reached Hoi An (from Da Nang) and went straight to our Airbnb. Battling the scorching heat of July, we started making plans while flipping through pages of the Lonely Planet, wondering what all we can cover in those 2 days! By then, we had already figured out that there was so much to see and we had very little time on our hands.
Grabbing lunch quickly, we headed off to Tan Ky House in the Ancient Town. It’s one of the most popular restored homes in the area. Owned by a Vietnamese merchant, the well-preserved interior consists of Chinese poems inlaid in mother of pearl, high ceilings with beams and carvings, and an open-to-sky courtyard.
The picture-perfect lanes left me drooling, and with every step I took, I was falling in love with Hoi An. Walking down the street, we noticed the 200-year-old house that was featured in the award-winning movie – The Quiet American.
Our next stop was the colorful Fujian Chinese Assembly Hall, which began as an assembly place for Chinese merchants and was later transformed into a temple of worship for Thien Hau, the local seafarer’s deity.
Next to this was yet another stunning building and a lady sitting at the gate introduced herself to us, saying she was the seventh generation living in that house. She was super enthusiastic to show us her place, and as we walked inside, we found ourselves standing in a courtyard where another lady was making some shrimp dumplings! She called it ‘Lotus Dumplings’ – as they looked like flowers, and claimed it to be her family’s recipe. There was no way we could miss it – and a plateful of flavors was served to us.
By the time we stepped out from there, the sun was about to set and the streets of Hoi An’s Ancient Town started buzzing! The lanes got draped in the lights of the lanterns, and the smell of Banh Mi and Pho started lingering in the air. Our hearts felt full, as we peeped into gorgeous souvenir stores selling Vietnamese silk scarves, multi-hued lacquer panels, and postcards painted with love.
After that much-needed retail therapy, pushing through the crowd of thousands, we made our way to see the Japanese Covered Bridge – one of the highlights of this town. For a moment, I felt as if I was in Kolkata and trying to find my way into a Durga Pujo Pandal – yeah, it was that jampacked!
Longing for a taste of Vietnamese iced coffee, we entered Cong Caphe and later embarked on a boat ride along the Thu Bon River. As we drifted from the bank, we admired the captivating lanterns that adorned the alleys on both sides of the river.
Although the day had already been quite fulfilling, we unexpectedly encountered an 80-year-old Australian man, a former soldier from the Vietnam War era in the 1970s, who now operates a charming cafe in Hoi An. We stepped in for a beer and Banh Mi, but ended up listening to his stories until midnight.
While my friends were still catching up on their sleep, I decided to take a stroll around the Ancient Town and capture some photographs. It was around 7:30 in the morning, and I was astonished to witness a completely different side of the town. The chaos and clamor of the night had given way to a serene, sunny morning, with only a few individuals strolling the streets. Although the shops were closed, street vendors were already selling coffee, fruits, and temple offerings. I explored a couple of temples, their names escaping me but their beauty was akin to postcard perfection.
Around 9 o’clock, the cafes began to open. I continued my walk, determined to find Banh Mi Phuong, a place recommended in Anthony Bourdain‘s book. The search was rewarded, and with its growing acclaim, quality cuisine, and consistent offerings, Banh Mi Phuong is now a must-visit for travelers in Hoi An seeking the best banh mi in town.
Having enjoyed a hearty meal, I returned to the hotel to join my friends. We indulged in a foot massage and spa session, completing our trip’s relaxation agenda.
Refreshed and rejuvenated, we packed our bags, checked out, and headed to An Bang Beach for a seaside lunch. The beach, bustling on a Sunday afternoon, led us to The Deck House, where we secured a table for a satisfying meal. While my friends opted for parasailing, I chose to relax with a book and a coconut drink.
Before bidding farewell to Hoi An, we decided to meet our elderly Aussie friend one last time. He insisted we try his special onion-mayo hot dog, adding a flavorful ending to our two amazing days in one of Vietnam’s most beautiful towns.
To say the least, in those 48 hours, I fell head over heels for Hoi An, and it wasn’t just the picturesque landscapes or the charming architecture that stole my heart. It was the seamless blend of old-world charm and vibrant modernity that captivated me at every corner. The energy of the bustling lounge bars, Instagram-worthy restaurants, and chic cafes along the Thu Bon River created a lively atmosphere. Yet, it was the tranquility of the ancient town in the early morning, with its faded ochre buildings and quiet, lantern-lit streets, that left an indelible impression. Hoi An’s rich history, evident in its well-preserved temples, French colonial houses, and Chinese assembly rooms, added a layer of depth to its allure.
The warmth of the people, the delectable local cuisine, and the unexpected encounters, like sharing stories with an 80-year-old Aussie war veteran in a quaint cafe, made Hoi An not just a destination but a love affair with a town that seamlessly weaves the past and present into a beautiful story.