“Hoi An is amazing”…”Hoi An is so lovely”…”Hoi An was my favourite”…”You HAVE to go to Hoi An”
Just some of the things we’d heard in advance of our trip. So naturally, we went! Don’t get me wrong, it was very lovely, however I think that many people’s appreciation of it comes from the fact that they have most likely come from either Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi…both of which are big, grey, noisy, bustling, polluted cities. So arriving in the small, colourful, semi-pedestrianised town of Hoi An is like a breath of fresh air – literally!
Where we stayed:
Banana Garden Villas – $170 USD for 3 nights (including breakfast and airport transfers)
What we did:
Vy’s Market Restaurant Cookery School – $25pp for 2.5 hours and plenty of food!
Phat Tyres ‘Holy Moly’ cycling tour – $59pp for full day guided tour to My Son ruins, morning tea, lunch, bike hire, entry to My Son and van back to Hoi An.
Strolled the streets of Hoi An (free)
Shopped and had leather goods custom made at one of the hundreds of tailors!
Where we ate:
Vy’s Market Restaurant (see above)
The Chef rooftop bar – $1 for beer, $4 cocktails, $5 meals
White Marble – $15pp for 5 course tasting menu with wine
We had 3 nights and 2 days in Hanoi, one of the days being spent on a day trip out of town, and for me that was enough time to feel we’d had a good explore of the place.
After our flight up from Ho Chi Minh was delayed by an hour or so we ended up arriving in the dark and the drizzle. We were collected at Da Nang airport by a car from the hotel, and after we’d passed through the bright lights of Da Nang there wasn’t a huge amount to see on the 30km drive to Hoi An…just the shadows of lots of semi-constructed beach resorts.
Banana Garden Villas is a recently built, family run hotel, about a 15 minute walk from the centre of Hoi An. They had a lovely pool (although 10metres was a little short for Ben’s Ironman training!) and breakfast was fantastic – all you can eat omelettes and pancakes, and even better…all you can eat passionfruit!!!
We smugly thought that we had got over any jet-lag the first night in HCMC but this was not the case. Both of us woke early, but Ben especially so. I’d half open my eyes at 5.30am to find him propped up in bed wide awake… “Oh GOOOD MORNING you’re up now great what shall we do today shall we get going?”
But, like in Ho Chi Minh, the perk of being first up is that you get to explore the city whilst it is quiet. We were the only ones on the Japanese Bridge (probably because it was 6am on Monday morning), compared to when we returned later in the day and had to fight our way through the selfie sticks, only to discover there was now a charge for simply setting foot on the bridge!
We were booked into Vy’s Market Restaurant Cooking school at 11am for a lunchtime lesson.
‘Vy’ (who we did not meet) seems to have built herself a bit of a foodie empire around Hoi An. She is also responsible for the Morning Glory cooking school and restaurant, and the gorgeous looking Maison Vy hotel, which we attempted to get a room for but only heard on the day before that they had space so we had already booked Banana Garden.
We were put in a group of six, with 2 American and 2 South African women, who were all on a 15 day tour of Vietnam and Cambodia. The market cooking school was set up in stations so we worked our way around the room watching, making and tasting various dishes.
We made some crispy pancakes which we had to fry in oil. Ben set his pan on fire and after that his station always seemed to be used as the ‘demonstration dish’…probably to supervise/prevent any more hazards!
Our culinary triumphs included: the famous ‘white rose’ of Hoi An (little dumplings), rice paper rolls, banana leaf dumplings, crispy pancakes, rice noodles, Banh Mi baguettes, and many more! We also got to stop off at the ‘Weird and Wonderful’ food counter, where they had more ‘Balloons’ (the duck egg embryos), some very tasty mini-snails with chilli, frog, jelly fish salad (sort of rubbery), and silk worms. I couldn’t bring myself to try a silk worm.
We read about the rationing during the war years, which apparently only finished in 1985!
The afternoon was spent lazily strolling around Hoi An checking out the shops. Ben bought himself some suede boots and we commissioned some leather bags to be made for his mum and sister. I found a leather shop, showed them the style of bag that I was after, but then told them that we’d like it in red and yellow leather. They first showed me a roll of muddy, toffee coloured yellow leather. I pulled a face and indicated that I wanted BRIGHT! The lady assured me that she had BRIGHT at home…so I haggled a bit, made an order and paid a deposit, and agreed that I’d come back the next afternoon to collect them. I was somewhat skeptical about how they would turn out, but the end results were fantastic. Now just to see how they handle actually carrying things!
During the afternoon we stumbled across a cute little shop/café/bar called ‘The Chef’. The ground floor was a book and record shop, and if we hadn’t googled ‘Rooftop Bar Hoi An’ we would never have known it was there! The middle floor is all kitted out in wood and has lots of speciality Belgian Beers, and then the top floor is the rooftop bar which is open from 4pm, you’re right up above all the rooftops of Hoi An:
It had a tree up on the roof, which instead of being covered in leaves was covered in lanterns. It didn’t look so impressive during the day, but when we returned for cocktails and dinner that evening it was spectacular! You could spot it from one of the alleyways along the side of the building and about every 5 minutes there were people stopping to take photos. I’m just surprised the rooftop bar/restaurant wasn’t busier – I thought it was a hidden gem!
A perk of Banana Garden Villa was that they supplied free bikes to borrow whenever you liked. Whilst it was only a short walk into town, it was an even shorter cycle, and it was a treat to roll home after a big meal and some drinks 🙂
Cycling home was just the warm-up for the next day when we rode 40km to My Son ruins.
We had smugly thought that perhaps we could avoid booking onto a guided tour, and just hire some mountain bikes and get ourselves to My Son.
I mean we probably could have got there, but I guarantee that would have consisted of us: googling the route, then wobbling along the edge of a very busy highway, fearing for our lives.
Instead, we opted to go with Phat Tyre ventures, who organise all sorts of tours in Dalat and Hoi An, and had a lovely guide called Hoang who we were totally reliant upon almost immediately after leaving Hoi An and riding straight into the rice paddies.
Left at the telegraph pole. Right at the cow. Right again at the tiny dirt path…. and so on….
When we’d gone into the Phat Tyres shop in Hoi An to book the night before the tour, we (me) asked a few questions along the lines of: “Is it possible to also cycle back from My Son? Will it just be us on the tour? If there are other people what do you do if they’re very different speed?”
Thus leading them to have the impression that we were arrogant and thought we were the bees knees at cycling.
So when Hoang came to meet us in the morning, his first question to me was “So you think you are Tour De France?” hahaha!
He then proceeded to ride SUPER fast all day so I had to pedal my little heart out just to keep up, probably to prove a point, point made.
We were on the bikes for 2 hours in total, but had one stop about half way for tea and soft drinks and biscuits and one stop en route where Hoang pulled up by the edge of the highway, bought a whole giant watermelon from a woman who was selling them, and popped it into his rucksack. And then sped off again. Pedal pedal pedal…
There was another stop about 5km from My Son where we had a tasty noodle soup lunch. There was a puppy here which I thought was very cute and Ben thought was mangey and probably had fleas.
There was also a tree, which I may have misunderstood, but Hoang told me was called the ‘Breast’ tree, because it had round fruit which had a sort of milk inside.
Haha I just googled ‘Vietnam Breast Tree’ to see if such a thing existed, definitely an error, here was the result:
I did learn some other interesting things from Hoang: the same plot of rice can be harvested 3 times a year, and virtually all of the farmland in Vietnam is owned by the government, and people pay a rent in order to farm it. People do usually have private ownership of their houses though.
Finally, we made it to My Son, where we parked our bikes and got a little electric buggy the 2km or so up the road towards the temple site.
The temples were built by the Champa people and ranged in age from 120AD to the 1300s. They really were buried in the middle of the jungle. The spot was chosen because it’s in a bowl between mountains and so was considered protected.
It really reminded me of the scene in the Jungle Book where King Louis is singing “I wanna be like you” and dancing amongst the jungle ruins.
The majority of the My Son ruins were, well, ruined (even more!) but US carpet bombing during the Vietnam war. They are now a UNESCO world heritage site and works are ongoing to restore them.
Here’s one of the groups of temples that was bombed:
After a couple of hours of walking around My Son, we got the van back to Hoi An (I’m SO glad we didn’t cycle back!) We are definitely not Tour De France.
Once back in town we went back to the Chef for a sun-downer drink, collected the leather bags, and then stumbled across a little corner restaurant called White Marble where we had their tasting menu. It’s funny how your price perception can change so quickly… back in London I’d happily pay £50/£60 a head for a tasting menu. Now I’m in Sydney I expect it to be more like $50/$60 AUS. After a few days in Vietnam, seeing that the tasting menu was 335k Dong ($15USD) I was thinking “Oh but that is a bit expensive” haha, I’m so glad we had it though because it was super delicious!
Despite our best attempts to stay up late, we were probably fast asleep in bed by 10pm, exhausted from cycling, sightseeing and eating. Not a bad way to be on holiday!
Next stop…. Hanoi (an anagram of Hoi An, just to be nice and confusing) and Ha Long Bay!