Let’s talk about Hoi An! Often confused with Hanoi, Hoi An is a coastal city that sits right in the middle of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh/Saigon is at the bottom and Hanoi is at the top. Whichever you fly into, do NOT miss the epicness that is Hoi An.
Getting there from Ho Chi Minh was quick and easy. I just jumped on a Vietjet flight to Da Nang (the closest airport) for just under R700 then took a 40-minute taxi to my hotel in Hoi An. This is an extremely well-trodden route so you don’t have to worry about messing it up or getting lost. The moment you touch down at the airport, be it day or night, you’ll have a zillion official taxis clamouring to take you to your Hoi An hotel’s door step.
The last time I was in Hoi An, I stayed in fancy hotel but this time round I picked Duck House, a ‘home stay’ for less than R200 per night, to see what all the fuss was about. A while back, a home stay referred to living in a rural family’s home to get a taste of ‘real’ Vietnam. Now, home stays are essentially just like ‘Airbnb’ in that anyone with an extra room sets it to function as a li’l guest house that’s run so professionally they can register on accommodation sites like Agoda or Booking.com. They’re becoming a bit of a bane for hotels, I think, because once you’ve done a home stay you’ll never want to do anything else. The folk tend to run them realise it’s personal (if you hate the breakfast that’s on them, not some random cog hidden away in the giant machine that is the The City Lodge) and extremely competitive so they go out of their way to ensure you’re treated like a queen. At least that’s the case in every home stay I’ve ever done.
Anyway, Duck House gets a million thumbs up. The en suite room (one of four) is spacious, mod, super clean, has blazing fast Wi-Fi and just a short walk away from Ancient Town. The best bit, however, is that it’s run by the most divine lady who works as a receptionist at a big beachfront resort so hospitality is her jam. If you need anything, she’s just a WhatsApp away and messages every night to find out what you want for brekkie, be it pancakes or scrambled eggs and fruit. This is beautifully made by her mom and delivered at a time of your choice to a little table on your patio via her super cute Hello Kitty-clad daughter.
Staying close to Ancient Town is important because that’s where all the action goes down in Hoi An. It reminded me a lot of walking around Disney World at night ‘cos every second person’s a shorts and moonbag-rocking tourist holding a glow stick or light up fan and the centre doesn’t allow cars in it. You get around on foot through a maze of restaurants and shops that include lots of tailors and custom shoe makes at prices that are so good you won’t want to barter. Think $10 for a pretty sundress dress, $12 for a basic custom one and $15 for a pair of custom leather sandals. If you’ve got a dress or shirt or something you love and wear all the time, my advice is to bring it with to Vietnam – to Hoi An specifically – because you will find someone who can copy it beautifully for next to nothing, usually in the space of 24 hours.
Everything feels a bit magical and very romantic because all the trees are strung up with either fairy lights and lanterns and, as a lot of the ancient city has been preserved, you’re crossing canals via little dragon bridges or stroll beautiful little temples. It’s really at it’s prettiest at night but then my camera can’t capture it. I also struggled to take pics in the day as it’s so bright everything just ‘washes out’ so if you want to get an idea best you get googling.
As it’s searing hot in Vietnam, much more so than Thailand, not too many people will be found on the street in the day but at night time it’s a different story. The streets are packed with families (so many kids!) and, as a solo traveler, I felt incredibly safe. Being from South Africa, where you’re always ‘on guard’, made this rare feeling of ‘nobody’s going to hurt me today’ just as indulgent as the R100 hour-long foot massages.
Getting around was super easy too. I could either walk or catch a Grab taxi. If you’ve read my posts on Thailand you’ll know Grab is basically Asian Uber and it’s crazy cheap. In fact, it’s even cheaper in Vietnam and a ten-minute trip will set you back about R15 to R20. Don’t come to Asia without downloading this app, ok?
Food-wise, Hoi An is a foodie paradise but these were the spots in (or close to) Ancient Town that I liked best. And yes, I’m aware my list is incredibly non-comprehensive and if you don’t like Indian or Greek you’re on your own.
I went through a biiiig Indian phase during my first few months in Asia. I think just having access to Cape Town’s Bukhara-quality Indian for the cost of a McDonald’s meal sent me into a frenzy and it’s all I ate. My top two spots in Hoi An are Baba’s Kitchen and Ganesh. Both are fierce competitors of each other, with Baba’s being the underdog that’s fast caught up.
I love that, at Baba’s, they bring you a bunch of sambals that include the mint sauce I like to slather all over my poppadoms. They noticed how much I love it (I literally emptied out the entire copper pot) and, when I took my leftovers as a takeaway, they kindly gave me a giant plastic baggy of it. This was just one of many little ‘extra mile’ kindnesses I experienced in Vietnam. The people are really, really nice, to the point that there’ll be times where, despite being a rather nice person yourself, you’ll feel like a horrible, jaded asshole face.
As far as Ganesh goes, they do a ‘special naan’ (R28) stuffed with paneer (cottage cheese), topped with garlic, chilli and coriander and drizzled with butter. Enough said.
Something you don’t find too often in the east is Mediterranean food. Italian? Sure! French. Yep, it’s here and there. But Greek is a bit of a rarity so I was thrilled to find not one but TWO truly excellent Greek restaurants in Hoi An. The first is Mix. A romantic little green lantern-bedecked restaurant right on the water where you can enjoy a truly delish ‘oh my God, it’s so big I can’t finish it’ seafood platter featuring everything from scallops to prawns for just R240.
They also have this truly fabulous feta cheese dip and I can’t remember the name but it’s the orange one. If you go, you’ll see it on every table so just point at it and be all ‘bring me a side of that guy!’ It can’t be missed.
Another serious winner is Greek Souvlaki, a hole-in-the-wall mom and pop shop just outside Ancient Town. I ate there so often it got to the point that the ladies didn’t even ask me for my order anymore. I’d just sit down and they’d get cracking, whipping up the world’s best tasting chicken souvlaki (R30) using a wrap they’d cook from scratch – just like a pancake – right in front of you. My top tip is to swap out the mustard sauce the chicken one is served with for their creamy tzatziki. Then you’ll die from awesome.
Ok, let’s be real. In Vietnam, you’ll find amazing Vietnamese food everywhere. Like, just open your mouth and good food will fall into it. Still, special mentions must go to Nu Eatery who do a pomelo, squid and apple salad in a spicy peanut butter dressing that, despite sounding like the most disgusting dish on earth, is next level amaze. I can’t remember what it cost but, much like everything I ate in Vietnam, it was crazily inexpensive. Enough so that a lot of the time I’d order what I wanted and then take a gamble that almost always worked out – asking the waiter to bring me their favourite dish. That’s how I ended up trying the salad and boy was it a winner. As for the sticky pork buns (R20 for 2)? Do not ask questions. Just order and thank me later.
Quan Chay Nhat Da is also great. An unassuming little vegetarian spot, they serve up the most divine crispy wontons with a minced mushroom centre. The topping features yet more mushroom plus carrot and pineapple. I asked for a hot sauce and the owner brought me her organic chilli, something she makes herself and I loved it so much I left with a bottle for just R20.
Within 24 hours this fucking sauce would leak in my trusty genuine leather handbag, a faithful friend I’ve had for almost ten years, blessing it with a giant oily stain that just won’t come out. Worth it? Hell’s yeah!
P.S. Another reason why I love Hoi An is because, being on the coast, it’s got some great beaches, specifically An Bang. After living it up in Ancient Town that’s exactly where I headed for a week of utter chill and I’ll be sure to write about it in my next post. In the meantime, feel free to ask me any questions in the comments section.