Hội An is a Vietnamese town on the central coast well known for its historic old town. We got here by flying into Da Nang, a larger and more typical city an hour to the north. We only spent a couple hours in Da Nang transferring our way to Hội An but we got a chance to see the very cool dragon suspension bridge (apparently it lights up at night and sometimes shoots flames, which I’m very sorry to have missed). We also wandered through a fish market and found an excellent lunch at a mall food court. Food courts really are pretty solid around here for clean, delicious food.
We then got to the guesthouse in Hội An we had booked a couple days before. We were a bit leery of committing for more than a couple nights given the noisy accommodations we had in Đà Lạt but it turns out we couldn’t be happier with this place (and wound up staying 4 nights). The family that runs it has been immensely friendly and our space is palatial for $15/night. From talking to several other people it sounds like Hội An has tons of great-value comfortable guesthouses of which ours was one. It seems a bit incongruous with the fact that it’s a heavily touristed location – usually that means good values are few and far between – but hey, we’ll take it!
Hội An’s old town is a cute small riverfront of preserved buildings packed with overpriced restaurants, coffeeshops, and an absurd number of tailors. The historic district is closed to vehicles at night to create a walking/cycling area – a refreshing escape from scooter mania. The streets are strung with lanterns that are lit at night and the combined effect with the architecture and swarms of tourists is a mini-French Quarter feel. Adorable wizened ladies hawk floating lanterns (for luck) and younger women who haven’t yet reached this stage push boat rides on the river among said lanterns.
Scattered around town are a series of historic sites-of-interest to visit. We found these to be all over the scale in terms of how interesting they were – the Phuoc Kien Assembly Hall was a favorite, highlighting Chinese influence, while the Tan Ky Old House wasn’t much more than a sales pitch for cheap baubles. Good news is each site is small and within a small area so hit-or-miss doesn’t cost you much.
Vietnamese food continues to impress here in Hội An. The city has a few dishes that are famously associated with the town and they know it – cao lầu, a pork/noodle/gravy dish, is advertised everywhere, as are white rose dumplings and fried wontons. Mì quảng is another popular dish (peanutty noodle soup with pork) which we had first tried in Đà Lạt. We sampled and enjoyed all of these but we found them surpassed by other delectables…
Bánh Mì Phượng of Anthony Bourdain acclaim is supposedly top in the world for the eponymous sandwich and we found no cause to argue. It’s a tiny shopfront cranking out orders rapid-fire and man was it great. We also found the squid here to be incredibly good – it’s fresh caught offshore every night. Once I figured out how tender and delicious it was I couldn’t get enough.
New to us here is bia hơi, fresh (as in daily) draft beer that is supposedly common in Vietnam though we couldn’t find it further south. I expect we’ll run into it more as we head towards Hanoi. You get a small glass of light and very flavorful lager for 3,000 to 5,000 dong which is a whopping 13 to 22 cents. Awesome! Restaurants get deliveries in small hand-pumped kegs from a local brewery. No regulations, no shipping, no branding fanfare, just cold and tasty.
We rented a scooter from our guesthouse and doubled up to take a half-day trip up to the nearby Marble Mountains (you may guess the local industry there), abrupt little hills rising out of the flat coastal area. The heights are dotted with a series of temples and caverns (also temples themselves) that you can climb up to and explore. At some point this apparently became a very popular thing to do as the place was mobbed with package tourists, mostly Chinese. Outdoor speakers pipe in cheesy music and an ugly concrete elevator tower (inexplicably located right next to a pretty pagoda) hauls up group after group. We walked up the stairs instead. Despite these shortcomings it was a worthwhile visit – the large cavern-temple of Huyen Khong was particularly impressive and the there were plenty of picturesque scenes.
We felt like getting out on the water and away from crowds and streets so we signed up for a snorkel day out at the nearby Cham Islands. This ended up being great! We went out on a midsize boat serving both divers and snorkelers. Right away we met several friendly and interesting folks from all over (Canada, Belgium, Malaysia…) and we had a good time chatting with them throughout the day. The reefs and marine life were okay and visibility was modest but our expectations were appropriately set ahead of time and we just enjoyed being on+in the water and beach with a good group of people.
Let’s see, what else? We took in a water-puppet show one evening, this is a traditional art dating back at least a thousand years (according to what I read, anyway) where the farmer’s stage was a flooded rice paddy. It was entertaining, unique, and clever at times, though I can’t say I wished it to go on longer than the half hour it did. We had a lazy last day in town, justifiable because the cloudless sky meant a harshly hot sun. A bit of biking around, more eating, and grabbing some opportunistic photos of local life. Tomorrow we take what is meant to be a rather scenic train ride up to another historic city, Huế. Until next time!
Specifics: we stayed at Starfruit Homestay Hoi An. Places of course can change over time but as of right now we couldn’t recommend it more. They provided bicycles and scooter so we did everything ourselves except for the boat day-trip which was with Cham Island Diving Center, also recommended. Based on talking to others here there’s no shortage of good accommodation. Driving around here is relatively calm, though not particularly scenic where we went.