Hoi An, City of Epic Adventures

Prior to traveling to Hoi An I heard had lots of good things, and it was the first solo trip I had taken in a while, so I was extra excited as I boarded the plane. I had made a loose list of things to do and see before leaving, and had the names of some restaurant recommendations from friends ready to go. And, as the writer of this blog, I am here to tell you—Hoi An did not disappoint.

Located on Vietnam’s central coast, Hoi An is a former port city that brings together Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese and European architecture in the most beautiful way. Walking along the main streets, I saw old wooden Chinese temples next to colorful French colonial buildings. Little old Vietnamese ladies selling fruits and vegetables and fish on the streets, and bright yellow houses under red silk lanterns hanging high above the streets. Shopfronts laden with rich purple bougainvillea (side note: Googling the spelling of this, the first articles that appeared were “Is bougainvillea dangerous?” and “How toxic is bougainvillea?” so I am glad I decided not to take any up-close-and-personal shots with this death wish of a flower). It reminded me of a cross between Key West, the Mediterranean and Panama City (can you picture it?). Also, Hoi An was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, giving it extra street cred!

Mostly my weekend in Hoi An was about cycling past the lush rice fields to the beach, strolling the laneways, shopping for clothes and jewelry and art, eating in restaurants and cafes set in old ornate buildings, walking along the riverbank, and generally taking in the ambience of this cute beachside town.

Friday night was a bit of a blur, as I arrived in the evening and, after getting my visa on arrival, checked into my hotel close to 9:30PM. Ate dinner at the quant little cafe attached to the hotel under those beaming lanterns, texted Mom and Dad and José to let them know the voyage had been kidnap-free. Fernando recommended the hotel to me (Hai Au Hotel), and it was great for my weekend stay: nice decor, large room, super friendly and helpful staff. Perfect!

Saturday I was up early, around 6:30 (though Michael Hayden would call this sleeping in or a “lazy Saturday morning”),  as I had a whole list of things I wanted to do that day, starting with a morning vinyasa class at this very cool-looking yoga studio I found online last week. I grabbed one of the free bikes from the hotel and hit the street for the 10-minute ride to Nomad Yoga. The studio is owned by an Irish/French couple and run by a bunch of cool hippies living in the area, and the class was great! Very nice and relaxing way to start the day. Afterwards, I had a big bowl of greens and some ginger tea at the Nomad Yoga cafe, crushing a few chapters in the new Hillary book over breakfast (I understand this is a highly stressful book choice for my relaxing morning).

When I was about to settle my bill it started raining a bit, sullying my plans to bike to the beach, but not to worry—she who is flexible in her plans/arrives in Hoi An with an exhaustive list of potential activities, does not suffer. I heard from many people that Hoi An has the best tailors in Southeast Asia but, not wanting to overpack my weekend, I decided I’d do a second trip further down the line specifically to have clothes made. After all, I didn’t want to commit the time and energy when I could be galavanting in the sea! That being said, I now had the time (and the energy) to see what this tailor situation was all about. Connor had recommended to me a well-reviewed shop named Mr. Xe, so I decided to pay this señor a visit. After cruising through the rain on my bike (please see photo below of what you may think is a soaked puppy but it is really me), I was happily stunned to learn that not only would the Xe squad be able to whip me up a badass dress for the office in under 24 hours, they’d also be able to throw in a pair of pants and a top! I just had to go back that evening at 6:30PM for a fitting, and pick up the clothes the next day at 1PM. Xinh!! (‘Beautiful’ in Vietnamese, according to the Goog)

After leaving (read: skipping out of) Mr. Xe’s boutique/sweatshop, I decided to walk around the downtown area since I was already in the area and the rain had stopped by then. I spent about three hours poking around the cute shops, trying some delicious Vietnamese food and coffee, and asking Chinese tourists to take photos of me in front of different cultural sites. I was especially excited to stumble upon Cocobox, a super cute modern-rustic cafe selling coffees, teas, juices, and snacks. The coffee was so good, I ended up buying three pounds of the espresso blend! They also had yummy treats for sale, like hot sauce, fragrant soaps and candles and bee pollen (not ‘yummy’ per se, but effective in treating those with seasonal allergies, such as the writer of this blog. Please pass me a tissue). I bought all three and walked around like a hunchback the rest of the day—worth it.

I spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the rest of Hoi An Ancient Town, including the Japanese Covered Bridge (built in the 1590s by the Japanese community, complete with a shrine to the Taoist god of weather and storms, cool), as well as the Quang Trieu assembly hall, where merchants from various regions would chill and do business between the 1700s-1800s (sounds like an Art Vandelay situation if you ask me). I was also sure to check out a few of the traditional art museums, but when it comes to “culture” I am most interested in food, 100% of the time. I headed to Karma Waters for lunch, rated one of the best vegan restaurants in all of Hoi An (and there were plenty). Sometimes even veggie heads want a little banh mi, too! I ordered more ginger tea and a tofu banh mi sandwich, which lived up to the hype. Super delicious, sullied only by the fact that the walls of the restaurant were covered in advocacy messaging around animal rights. I ate my sandwich quickly, and headed back to Hai Au.

Back at the hotel, I decided to take advantage of the free 30-minute spa treatment guests receive when checking in. Because I live by the motto #TreatYoSelf (Mom and Dad, please see here for cultural reference. This is the daughter you have raised), I super-sized that massage into a 90-minute foot reflexology session, and FaceTimed the parental units to catch them up on what I had been doing all day/reinforce the kidnap-free message. When the reflex sesh was over, the sun had started to set, so I swapped out my Nikes and headed back to Boutique du Xe (the tailor) before walking over to a restaurant I had heard a lot about: Mango Mango. This place was epic! Housed in an old heritage wooden house, Mango Mango is a very trendy and cool spot that serves up contemporary Vietnamese cuisine, and was the perfect end to a wonderful day. Not one to consider portion size/cost/much else at the dinner table, I started off with these bomb-dot-com tuna rolls wrapped in seaweed paper and topped with passion fruit-mint yogurt sauce, and a main dish of seasonal vegetables with garlic and herbs, served with grilled eggplant and tamarind sauce (simple dish, yet done beautifully). Because hunger level/general sensibility is also not in my consideration set when seated at a restaurant, I sprung also for the mango flambé to top off the meal. I was very uncomfortably full but also very happy, a sensation I’ve become surprisingly comfortable with over the years. From there, it was back to the hotel so I could a) rise and shine early on Sunday and b) video chat with José for a bit to hear about his weekend and tell him about mine.

Sunday morning was the same drill: breakfast at the hotel and 2 5 cups of delicious Vietnamese coffee. I didn’t have anything to do until 11AM, so I started walking to a cafe (yes I am addicted to caffeine, let’s accept it and move on) to read some more Hillary, but as I walking over, I passed by another nice-looking cafe that was playing Van the Man so loudly you could hear it from the streets, and I was sucked in right away. I spent about 90 minutes there (the coffee was quite weak and I didn’t finish it, but I did crush about three chapters in my book and bond with the Irish owner, a fellow Van Mo and general good music lover). I ended up stopping into the original cafe to get a proper cup of coffee, but the sea of tweens taking selfies was too much and as a general rule I like to avoid teenagers, so I headed to my next destination a bit early. Being early does not exactly align with my personal brand, but I’m glad I was there early—the next place was the coolest.

Where was the next place, you ask? Vy’s Market Restaurant & Cooking School! Another off-brand scenario for me considering I have recently learned how to boil water, but I was ready to learn some new skills and, more importantly, have another excuse to eat more good Vietnamese grub. This place is attached to Morning Glory, one of the three restaurants in Hoi An owned by Ms. Vy, restauranteur, chef and general BAMF. Before telling you about the class, I have to note that Vietnam’s cuisine is absolutely incredible, rated second most healthy diet in the world (second only to Israel!), and filled with lots of cool ingredients I had never heard of before moving to Asia. We started off the class with our guide Soong showing us around several different stations on the first floor of Ms. Vy’s, trying our hand at making rice noodles, and tasting white rose dumplings, mini banh mi, banh xeo, jelly fish salad, mango and prawn salad, and other weird and wacky foods. At each station, chefs prepared the food for us (myself and a cool Aussie couple) to try fresh, and Soong explained how everything was made. There were several stations, like the crispy pancake and spring rolls stations, were we got to prepare our own dishes, too! The head chef demonstrated how each dish was prepared, while explaining why all the different spices and herbs were essential to each dish, while her assistant walked around the kitchen to ensure everyone was preparing the dishes correctly and to answer any questions (I am purposely leaving out the details about the taste and presentation of the dishes I made. All I will say is, thank goodness for feminism and the evolving roles of women). There was even one station where we got to try incredibly out-there dishes, like steamed pig brain and small snail salad. I set my vegetarianism aside for the moment to try these insanely foreign dishes, because life is short and I don’t remember any consequential messaging around pig brain in the Netflix documentaries I’ve seen. At the end of the class, we were rewarded for our hard work with a choice of 12 ice cream flavours. Since I am driven by the same motivations as a five-year-old, I was extra excited by this. Overall, I liked this approach to the cooking class because it was the laziest way for me to say I had done cooking. Two thumbs, way up.

I had just a few more hours in Hoi An to spend, so after scooping up my fresh new threads from Mr. Xe (including a dress he made me on the house for being “so nice customer” and because Mr. Xe is the MAN), I got back on the bike and headed to An Bang beach for some R&R, which was much needed after a weekend of foot reflexology and dress fittings. The two-and-a-half mile cruise (or four kilometres, for anyone reading this located literally anywhere outside the States) was incredible—twenty minutes of rippling, lush green fields of rice, dotted with oxen and cows throughout. I stopped to take some photos which you can see below, and ended up An Bang to take in the sea. After parking my bike for a fee, I immediately noticed the string of bohemian beach-hut restaurants littered across the shore, as well as tons of beach beds and umbrellas on the sand. I did a quick dipset around all of this, instead heading to a quieter and more private spot about a 10-minute walk from the main area. There are a few things in life that I will never be jaded by, like sunsets and the first snow at Christmastime, and beaches with mountain backdrops are one of those things. The landscape is truly jaw-dropping, and it really takes my breath away every time. I spent a few long moments soaking up the goodness of the moment, before dipping my toes in the water, enjoying some lime juice at one of the beachside huts, and turning it back to town.

The last restaurant for me to try was Morning Glory (one of Ms. Vy’s), so I headed there for a quick snack and some more ginger tea before heading back to the hotel to collect my bags. From there, it was on to Da Nang Airport for an 8:30PM flight back to Singy. Hoi An had all the ingredients for a perfect weekend getaway—art, coffee, music, food and drink, architecture, history, shopping. Incredible charm and beauty. Rich history and roots. And truly the right mix of relaxation and exploration for someone like me. So far, Hoi An is certainly my favourite place in Vietnam, and one of my favourites in Asia, too!

Some photos from Hoi An:

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