The mini red flags bearing the yellow star alternating between the sickle and hammer, rapidly flapping in the wind hovering over the lazy side streets where people on motorbikes, bicycles, and the occasional whale of a van or car tries to squeak on through like threading a needle.
The buildings brightly colored blue, red, green, and that special brand of Hoi An yellow. Lantern town. Where every day feels festive. The streets buzzing with tourists and shutterbugs. Shoppers and families wandering around while local locust-likes try and sell you on their restaurant or the one out of a hundred spas on the strip.
“You want massage!?” Followed by another “You want foot massage!?” Seems like everyone and their neighbor is an expert masseuse.
Down below, across the street, a large Kumquat tree with “chuc mung nam moi” ornaments hang.
It’s Tet Holiday, Lunar New Year. Motorbikes are parked off to the side. Wooden chairs in a circle and people chain smoking cigs all while throwing down cards and yelling at each other in excitement. The garden next door enclosed. A picket fence and 500L metal water tank on the roof. An older gentleman in a white tank hanging out laundry to dry. The large red flag and yellow star in front.
The other night it was intense. The music was loud and people down the street were singing, or should I say yelling karaoke for 12 hours straight. Different remixes, followed by slow dances, the ups and downs and the bass vibrating the entire street was very Vietnamese. The noise levels are next level.
Standing out on the balcony laughing at the all too familiar sounds of deep bass techno and squeaky high pitched best attempt at karaoke that is clearly and unmistakably Vietnamese. Filled with emotion and crying out. The twangy-ness and bass echo in the night and the sound is carried across the river. The breeze is cool, as today the sky was grey and undecided about whether or not to rain.
I’ve been living in Hoi An on and off for months. Each trip a different experience. The first time was a few years ago with a couple of high school friends, the second time was with my Mom and the most recent I had been living in resorts with Bella over the past 4 months.
For the most part, I feel we’ve covered a lot of Hoi An and given its charm it never gets dull. Below are my “top” lists for restaurants, hotels, sites, and things to do while visiting this lovely city.
Note: These aren’t in any specific order (i.e., #1 doesn’t mean it’s the best it’s just a number in a list)
1. The Happy Buffalo
Definitely, a top spot to get delicious bites and cold bias. The Australian owners are super friendly and you can’t go wrong getting fish tacos, spicy salad cups, cao lao mac and cheese, buffalo wings, and chicken and waffles. It’s a great place to catch the sunset too, as the place backs up to a pond that’s used to farm shrimp.
2. Fish n Chips n Stuff
As we stayed closer to Ancient Town Chips n Fish n Stuff was our go-to spot. The place is just across the bridge and at the end of the other island. Their signature fish n chips are 150K VND and are definitely worth it. Picture of mango and cucumber salad to balance out the fried with freshness.
3. Nu Eatery
Initially, we had trouble finding the place as it’s hidden down a back alley just as you cross the Japanese Bridge. Sometimes they restrict access to the bridge and require you to pay for a ticket. You can easily just take the smaller bridge and cut through to the other side. It’s a small place, but the fusion food is great. The banh mi pulled pork sandwich, also any of the salads are good too.
4. River Front
Sitting along the river at this Riverside Restaurant catching the sunset. Just had BBQ oysters and a couple of Bia Saigons. This place is a nice place to eat and it’s just down across the bridge on Cua Dai. Along the banks of the river are floating plastic blue drums that are structured into rectangles attached with bright green nets. Fish farming. A group of men carrying other blue barrels filled with fish food use a bamboo Pole to carry the barrels and walk along the perimeter, feeding the shrimp and fish living in the net. Palm trees off in the distance and old dried and weathered bamboo sticking out of the water forming a larger perimeter. Metal and red rusted tin shacks are mini headquarters for each of the floating farms. As the sun sets the locals paddle in wooden boats all along the river.
5. Oc Pho Co
Bella and I went to Oc Pho Co to get snails, oysters, and scallops and I wish I knew of this place earlier. The place was packed and drunken patrons were yelling “mot, hai ba, zho! A count 1,2,3 cheers!” So the pressure keep up and compete with them was there. A magician came by and randomly set up a karaoke stereo and blasted upbeat epic music while he stood on top and performed tricks. He emptied a pot of water, blew into the “empty” pot, then after lifting it up began to pour water out. He also changed small bills into larger ones. Flipped through an empty coloring book then re-flipped to show drawings, and more stuff on the pages.
Old ladies would walk through the restaurant selling fruits, peanuts, quail eggs and other various things. We got the quail eggs with salt and pepper to go with our snails.
Overall, this place is pretty busy but the waiters do their best to scribble down your order and get your food out as best they can. Don’t be too pressed for time if you plan on coming here.
6. Mr. Son
This place first caught my attention when I’d always ride by a see a sign out front, “Slow Food for Slow Life”. We popped in and were really glad we found this place. Every item on the menu is great and we ended up coming back 5 or more times to try something new. The citrus shrimp salad, wonton, banh xeo, and aloha smoothie is a must.
Near the Japanese Bridge is Mix, a Greek / Mediterranean restaurant that has some pretty heavy food to offer. The bread and dips and souvlaki is good but will knock you out, so best to eat here for dinner. A bit pricey, but given that they’re pretty much the only Greek restaurant in Hoi An it’s worth it.
8. Window Ice Cream
Right down the street from Mix and near the Japanese Bridge tucked away on the side you’ll spot a window and signage for an ice cream shop. The lady offers homemade flavors and each day there will be something new. I highly recommend the lemongrass & basil, rum & raisin, and sea salt caramel.
Other places worth mentioning are Karma Waters and Vegan Zone, Circle Burger, and Baba’s Kitchen for Indian.
Things to Do
1. Ancient Town
Best explored at night to beat the heat during the summer months, Ancient Town is filled with lanterns strung up between the old buildings that border the river. Boat rides are offered and old ladies will try to get you to purchase small paper cutouts with a candle lit inside to float down the river for good luck and fortune. The main bridge connecting Ancient Town of Cua Nam island is a popular spot for tourists to take photos so it’s usually packed. It’s truly a joy to just get lost and wander down all the side streets in the Ancient Town.
2. Lune Performance
Just on the other side of Ancient Town, you’ll see a massive dome-shaped building made out of bamboo. It’s the Lune Performing Arts Center and usually, during the weeknights, you can get tickets to see a Cirque de Soleil-type acrobatic performance that’s mesmerizing all while at the same time making you feel out of shape! The entire performance is in Vietnamese but the acting and movement are so good that you can get the jist.
3. Basket Boat Crab Fishing in Coconut Farm
Checking out the coconut farms and going fishing for soft-shelled river crabs is an experience to be had.
It was pretty crazy to see hundreds of crabs scrambling around between the trees/mud. They’re like spiders, and the forest is their nest. The old lady who helped paddle (understatement) was 62 years old. When I told her to rest in the middle of the basket boat and chill while I do the rowing, she pulled out a knife and made “grass jewelry.”
We rowed to a muddy bank, and she reached down and pulled out a clam, opened it with a knife, took the meat out, tied a knot around it, and handed us tiny bamboo fishing poles. When we were done we rowed back and the guy who owns the homestay where we’re staying mentioned that during the war soldiers would hide out in the forest. We let the 8 baby crabs go free at the end.
4. The Quiet American
In the Ancient Town the house where the film “The Quiet American” was filmed starring Michael Cane and Brendan Fraser. They have a special buy 2 craft beers for 50K VND, it’s also a good place to rest and get out of the sun. At the entrance, they also sell special homemade hot sauce.
Lastly, a few other notable things to do are: get a suit tailored at Blue Eye, go down to An Bang Beach, and enjoy the sunsets.