My Paradise: Escape for taste of Vietnamese hospitality, cuisine
My Paradise: Escape for taste of Vietnamese hospitality, cuisine
Since it was my friend’s birthday, and a big one at that, she wanted to celebrate it big, with an adventure to make lasting memories. Our plans weren’t initially for Vietnam, but after spending five days exploring Hoi An, a busy central coast city with a mix of Japanese, French Colonial and Vietnamese architecture, I am so glad we went.
I didn’t know what to expect, but what I found in Hoi An was a beautiful escape with delicious food, unbelievable beaches, fun activities and lovely people willing to share stories and tips about their home.
Vietnam is known for hot, humid summers prone to flooding. Our visit in late March was just before the stifling heat set in, and though we expected a little bit of rain, we were lucky to have sunny days and slightly warmer temperatures perfect for an escape from Tokyo’s chilly spring.
Since this was our first time in Vietnam, I wanted to make sure our itinerary had plenty of cultural activities, rest and relaxation, time to spend enjoying the local custom clothing market, and a little bit of nightlife. Though our intent was not initially to spend our entire time in Hoi An, this beautiful city kept us busy and even left us with some activities to try for a future visit. And believe me when I say that I’ll definitely be returning asap!
Here are some activities we enjoyed while visiting beautiful, historical Hoi An.
Ba Na Hills, Da Nang
Ba Na Hills is a resort in the Trường Sơn Mountains west of Da Nang, or about an hour away from Hoi An. This spot is famous for its Golden Bridge, seemingly held by two gigantic hands reaching to the heavens. The area is a goldmine for Instagrammable photo spots and tends to draw a crowd of locals and tourists.
Since our hotel was about an hour drive away from Bana Hills, we booked a tour in advance through Airbnb. The tour guide arranged our transportation and our tickets to the resort and cable car rides.
There are many social media videos describing Ba Na Hills as a sort of Disneyland. During my visit, I understood that it very much is. The resort has constructed facades and gardens to look like an Italian village in the mountains with strong Disney or Las Vegas vibes.
The Golden Bridge is hands-down a selfie spot with crowds to boot, but the views of the surrounding landscape and coast from above were breathtaking. You won’t regret the beautiful photos you can get here. Our guide, Tam, knew all the right places and poses for us to get great Instagram pics.
Book a tour of Ba Na Hills with Tam
Take a food tour
Since this was a celebratory trip, we made sure to book a tour with a local guide for cocktails and small bites around Hoi An. Our Friday night private tour with Rosie was amazing and took us to great bars serving interesting cocktails with local ingredients. One of the bars had a mezcal flight (mezcal is from Mexico, not Vietnam), which included orange slices seasoned with spicy cricket (yes, the insect) salt.
If alcohol is not your thing, there are non-alcoholic options as well. Or, try a coffee tour instead. Vietnam has some of the best coffee, coffee drinks and teas and Rosie also hosts a coffee drink walking tour around Hoi An during the day.
For my friend’s birthday dinner, we booked a private dinner cruise on the Thu Bon River in Hoi An. The food was delicious, and it came with a free welcome cocktail, but we also paid for a bottle of sparkling wine. It was a bit windy on the boat, but we enjoyed our meal and despite a few snags (the boat was temporarily caught in some of the fishermen’s traps), we had a great time. The cruise ended with us launching paper lanterns into the river to wish for good luck, a perfect way to mark a birthday.
Hello!: Xin chào!
How are you?: Khỏe không?
Very good, thank you.: Được rồi, cảm ơn cô.
What is your name?: Tên bạn là gì?
Relax at the spa
Like many other vacation spots in Asia, spa treatments in Vietnam are a must. Fortunately, our hotel had a spa right next to the lobby, so we didn’t have to go far to enjoy a luxurious afternoon.
Best of all, the treatments are affordable – even for a hotel spa – for all budgets. For a manicure, pedicure, body scrub, full body massage and facial, including time in the sauna, we spent about $50 per person. The price might be suspicious, but I can assure you the service was as good, if not better, than any spa I’ve been to in Japan and in the States.
Not only did we enjoy one spa day, but we loved it so much we made sure to enjoy another set of spa treatments after check-out since we didn’t have to be at Danang Airport until 8 p.m. Check reviews for reputable spas when you visit and get ready to enjoy maximum relaxation!
Hit the night market
To sample the local fare, buy souvenirs and experience the local culture, you’ve got to check out the Hội An Night Market. Grab a bahn mi, a refreshing coconut drink and peruse the designer-inspired goods. The night market is on the edge of the river so you can also take a small canoe out to place lanterns here.
After the market winds down at around 10 p.m., hit the bars, pubs and clubs in the area. These are mostly for backpackers and foreigners, but some offer live bands and karaoke, so why not?
Get a custom ‘fit
If you’re like me and love clothes and shoes, you’ll want to make time to check out Hoi An’s many tailor shops. This town is the center of bespoke clothing and shoes. Our obsession with clothes and shoes is part of the reason why my friend and I spent so much time in Hoi An instead of exploring Da Nang and elsewhere.
Hoi An’s shopping district has hundreds of shops dedicated to custom suits, dresses, and more. And, best of all, these outfits can be done in record time. We ordered a lot of clothes, so it took a couple of fittings to get the fit right, but we ended up with one-of-a-kind outfits and shoes to remember our trip to Vietnam for years to come.
If you’re looking to get custom clothing, I would suggest you adjust your expectations, however. The prices go up depending on the material and turnaround depending on difficulty. We went to Friendly Shoe Shop for our custom shoes and those took multiple fittings over the span of three days. The ladies at the shoe shop suggested Phuong Nam Tailor Hoi An for clothes. Our clothing took longer (about four days) and required multiple fittings (some more than once per day) to finish. If you’re only ordering one item, like a bridesmaid dress or suit, you can probably get away with a day for turnaround.
The experience was great and the employees at both the shops were talented and made sure our items fit to perfection. I would definitely go back again, especially since I now know what to expect.
Tips for easy travel in Vietnam
- Grab a SIM card at the airport.
- Download Grab app for taxis and food delivery.
- Opt for a motorbike taxi.
- Don’t forget your water shoes!
A trip I didn’t want to end
After spending five days in Hoi An, my only regret was not planning a longer trip to travel to other areas. I also could not understand why in all the time I’ve lived in Japan, I’d stayed away from Vietnam. I had such an amazing time and met some friendly people genuinely interested in sharing the history and culture of their hometown. I absolutely fell in love with Vietnam and am desperate to get back as soon as possible. Catch me at the bahn mi stand!
You’ll never run out of delicious options to try while anywhere in Vietnam. If you’ve traveled to other Asian countries, you know you should be careful when trying street food stalls. I suggest packing Pepto, Immodium, hydration powders and antacids because you never know how your stomach will react to the new foods you’re introducing.
That said, these are all food and restaurants I recommend for some delicious treats in Hoi An.
• Bahn mi: These perfect sandwiches are inexpensive and so delicious. Every food stand and restaurant have their own take on this, so try as many as you can! I tried the late Anthony Bourdain’s recommendation in Hoi An and thought it was okay (pro tip: sit inside to get your bahn mi faster and try their coconut coffee, too). My favorite bahn mi is actually from a food cart on a street corner in Da Nang.
Bánh Mì Phượng - 2b Phan Chu Trinh, Cẩm Châu, Hội An, Quảng Nam 560000, Vietnam
• Fried spring rolls: Nearly every restaurant serves up these delectable fried spring rolls with sweet chili sauce for dipping.
• Cao lau: This is a Hoi An take on udon noodles recommended by the owner of the tailor shop. The noodles are tossed with herbs, crackers and a little bit of broth and topped with lime juice and chili oil. According to Quang Nam’s tourism site, this delicious noodle dish is a blend of the Chinese and Japanese influences that arrived in this port town during the 17th century.
Noodle House - 13 Đ. Bạch Đằng, Cẩm Châu, Hội An, Quảng Nam 560000, Vietnam
• White rose dumplings (Bánh bao bánh vạc): These steamed dumplings are another Hoi An specialty. Delicate rice paper is stuffed with ground pork, shrimp, and mushrooms and then wrapped to look like a rosebud.
White Rose Restaurant - 533 Đ. Hai Bà Trưng, Phường Cẩm Phổ, Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam
• Pho: You can’t visit anywhere in Vietnam without trying one of their signature exports! Even though it was hot during our visit, I wanted something light and healthy for a late lunch and the chicken pho I had at Noodle House provided that comfort. There are a variety of meats to choose from for your pho, but the chicken was delicious.
• Coconut coffee, egg coffee: Vietnamese coffee is extraordinary and what the dozens of cafes in Hoi An serve up is delicious. Coconut coffee is like an affogato, but instead of vanilla ice cream they use frozen whipped coconut milk with Vietnamese coffee poured over. Egg coffee is usually served warm and involves beating an egg yolk with sweetened condensed milk until it creates an incredible foam to pour over Vietnamese coffee. It sounds weird but it’s delicious.
• Chè Thái (coconut milk dessert): This dessert is coconut milk topped with fruit, jelly, and crushed ice in a big bowl. We were introduced to this dessert soup by Rosie our cocktail tour guide when she took us to PHỐ CHÈ - Hội An. The shop offers many different options, including durian, but we really enjoyed the che xoai sago, a mango che thia, and the tau hu hoang kim, a tofu pudding topped with passion fruit and pineapple jelly.
PHỐ CHÈ - Hội An - 88 Phan Chu Trinh, phường Minh An, Hội An, Quảng Nam , Hoi An, Vietnam
• Foods to skip! I usually don’t suggest skipping on the experiences, but these were not great, a waste of money and time. So, avoid pre-cut fruit at the market (better to be food safe than stomach sorry), rolled ice cream at the night market, and mango pancakes.
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