My first experience of Hoi An was during a rainstorm at night. It’s always unfortunate when your travels are hit by bad weather, and there could seem nothing worse than arriving at such a destination under such circumstances. But as lanterns shone in the reflections of puddles, streets stood tranquil but for a passing cyclist, and yellow walls shimmered wet through the deluge, the scene told a different story. Irrespective of, if accentuated by the conditions, the beauty of Hoi An shone more clearly through the dark, more ethereally through the rain: unlike anywhere I have ever experienced before, its magic seemed to permeate through.
Wandering into Hoi An is like stepping into a fairytale. Charming, serene and chocolate-box pretty, it’s an authentic, unspoilt delight. Located at the estuary of the Thu Bon River, the well-preserved Ancient Town is recognised as a World Heritage Site, and the harbour has retained its character as a South East Asian trading port dating back to the 15th century. The waterfront is lined with colourful boats, the buildings are timeless and unique, and the streets wind us back to a bygone era.
Hoi An’s identity as a historic trading centre is mirrored today in its fusion of different cultures. The town was particularly popular with Chinese and Japanese merchants during the 16th and 17th centuries, and the distinct aesthetic of its temples, houses and pagodas stems largely from these influences. One of Hoi An’s most famous sights, the Japanese Covered Bridge is emblematic of this: constructed in the 1590s, it’s the only known covered bridge with an adjoining Buddhist temple, created by the Japanese community to create a link with the Chinese quarters across the steam.
Other such examples include the Quan Cong Temple founded in 1653, a small temple dedicated to the esteemed Chinese Genera, and the Assembly Hall of the Hainan Chinese Congregation, with fine Chines woodcarvings and walls painted in vibrant turquoise hues. Hoi An is also notable for its ancient pagodas: the oldest is Chuch Thanh Pagoda, founded in 1454 by a Buddhist monk with several bells still in use, and Van Duc Pagoda, where monks still travel to pray on full moons and certain Buddhist celebration days.
The Ancient Town still remains a thriving artisan quarter, with art galleries and wooden merchant houses selling a variety of traditional crafts. But Hoi An has become most notable for its plethora of tailor shops, a mecca for custom designed clothes and shoes. Many of their skilful workers are well-known throughout the world, able to produce the exact replica of any item of clothing you want within 24 hours. Whether or not you succumb to one of their designs (which you will), it’s an impressive experience, with almost every street in the town featuring this artful display of silk fabrics and fashioned mannequins.
As with every city in Vietnam, food is a quintessential part of the experience of Hoi An, with some of the greatest restaurants you’ll encounter in the country. The beautifully elegant Ancient Faifo is worthy of note, as is the vibrantly decorative Mango Rooms. The family-run Morning Glory offers a menu of homemade recipes dating back multiple generations. There’s also the Reaching Out Tea House, one of the quirkiest establishments I have been to, run exclusively by staff with speech or hearing impairments: its silence is a unique oasis.
But perhaps most memorably, there’s the opportunity to try your hand at cooking, as well as eating. Taking part in one of the many cooking tours available is an excellent way of learning more about the local and national specialities. The Thuan Thinh Island Cooking Tour comes highly recommended, offering a comprehensive, hands-on session on how to make a variety of Vietnamese dishes. The tour starts with an educational trip to the market to purchase the ingredients, before a boat ride to the remote cooking island to prepare a four course meal. A special culinary adventure, it makes for an unmissable, one-off experience – typical of Hoi An itself.
While there is plenty to love about Vietnam, there can be little dispute that Hoi An is its brightest gem. It’s the destination that most travellers rave about on return, a romantic step back in time, taking us deep into the very heart of the country. The experience will long linger the imagination, and I can only say it’s one of the most bewitching places I’ve ever been to: there really is nowhere else like it.