My kind of place: Once a busy trading port, this quiet Vietnamese town is one of the country's highlights.
Stop on the Silk Route in Vietnam's Hoi An
Why Hoi An?
For Hoi An, the influx of international visitors looking for exotic handcrafted goods is nothing new. In the first century, the Thu Bon River estuary was the biggest harbour of its kind. The Cham people controlled the spice trade from here between the seventh and 10th centuries; by the 16th century, when it was settled by the Japanese, Dutch, Chinese and Indian merchants, the town had become an important trading point for carved wood, silks and ceramics on the Silk Route.
Hoi An was eventually abandoned as a trade hub at the end of the 18th century, but its architecture was left relatively untouched, earning it a Unesco World Heritage inscription in 1999 and a steadily increasing stream of inbound travellers - this time of the vacationing variety - from around the world.
Today, the city's craftsmen continue to ply their trade from well-preserved traditional shop houses, and every evening multicoloured lanterns are lit in the cobbled streets to celebrate festivals or the simple fact that the sun has set.
A comfortable bed
Set on the banks of the Thu Bon River on the fringe of Hoi An's old quarter, the recently refurbished Life Heritage Resort Hoi An (www.life-resorts.com; 00 84 510 3914 555; double rooms cost from 4,013,625 Vietnamese dong [Dh708] per night) is one of the area's most laid-back retreats and a good base from which to explore the old town on foot. Open spaces decorated in dark-wood furniture and local silk complement the French colonial-inspired architecture.
Five kilometres from the town centre on Cua Dai Beach, overlooking both the river delta and the ocean, the tranquil Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa (www.victoriahotels.asia/en/; 00 84 510 3927 040; double rooms cost from 3,917,760 dong [Dh691] per night.) has the atmosphere of a Vietnamese fishing village, with tile-roofed houses set around small streets and ponds.
Find your feet
Ho An's historic centre is small and mostly traffic-free, so it's a joy to walk around. Entry to Hoi An's communal houses, ancient homes, Chinese trading halls, tombs and live performances is by a coupon system. Booklets of five coupons, each permitting entry to one attraction, can be purchased for 120,000 dong (Dh21) from shops all over town. Japanese Bridge, built by Japanese merchants at the end of the 16th century and attached to a Buddhist pagoda, is a good starting point for a stroll. Hoi An was Vietnam's first Chinese settlement, and Quan Cong Pagoda, founded in 1653 on the corner of Nguyen Hue street, is dedicated to the Chinese general Quan Cong, symbolising integrity and justice to those who pray here.
Meet the locals
The merchant ships have long since sailed but many residents continue to make their living from the ocean. The sight of men casting nets at dawn and dusk is in stark contrast to the frenzied atmosphere at Hoi An's Central Market once the catch is brought ashore - this is a great place to meet the locals if you don't mind the fierce elbow wars.
Cua Dai Beach has always been popular for its fresh seafood. An Bang Beach, once frequented by locals, now offers western-style restaurants beside the seafood shacks run by locals, and attracts expats.
Book a table
Don't miss Nguyen Duc's Mango Rooms (www.mangorooms.com) for the 600,000 dong (Dh106) contemporary menu that features red snapper fillet with ginger, onion and roasted black pepper, and duck breast marinated in five spices served with bitter chocolate, passion fruit and garlic-butter sauce.
The boudoir-like Q Bar Hoi An (94 Nguyen Thai Hoc; 00 84 510 391 1964) occupies one of the city's oldest surviving 19th-century shop houses that is a mix of Vietnamese-style facade, Chinese loft and Japanese garden and kitchen - a tribute to the town's trading heritage. Even the menu reflects Hoi An's rich culinary history: summer watermelon salad with grilled squid (90,000 dong; Dh16), pad Thai (120,000 dong; (Dh21) or Vietnam's essential bun bo xao, vermicelli noodles with stir-fried beef (110,000 dong; Dh19).
Renowned for its lustrous silks, Hoi An is perhaps better known for its cheap tailoring than its cultural heritage. As result, tailoring shops do a brisk trade in made-to-order clothing, shoes, bags and belts. Most places can put together an outfit in 12 hours or less and even deliver to your doorstep, but always check the finish before paying in full. Yaly Couture is a little more expensive than most but promises quality and a quibble-free experience (47 Nguyen Thai Hoc; 00 4 510 391 0474).
The shop houses in the two-kilometre-square centre sell everything from embroidered silk to marble statues. Just over the bridge in An Hoi town is the night market, famous for its silk lanterns and fans.
A cookery class at Red Bridge Restaurant & Cooking School (www.visithoian.com/redbridge; 00 84 510 3933 222), a five-minute drive from town, takes place within three pavilion-style buildings in tropical gardens. The classic half-day class includes a shopping trip to Central Market for everything from star anise and cardamom to rice paper and banana flowers, before learning to use them in dishes such as pho, Vietnam's famous noodle soup; cha ca, clay-pot fish with dill; tom nuong la chuoi, lemon-grass shrimp grilled in banana leaves; and goi hoa chuoi ga nuong, chicken and banana-flower salad. Tours cost from 330,000 dong (Dh59) to 900,000 dong (Dh158) per person.
What to avoid
Hoi An's attractiveness, combined with its small size, has led to it becoming something of a tourist town. It has retained a relaxed feel, but get up early in the morning and walk the streets to avoid the feeling of being merely part of a parading throng.
Return flights to Ho Chi Minh City from Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) cost from Dh3,660 and take seven hours. Jetstar (www.jetstar.com) flies from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang, a 40-minute drive to Hoi An, from 3,680,000 dong (Dh650) return.
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