Top things to do in Hội An, Vietnam
Fabulous fresh food is the order of the day – every day – in this ancient riverside town. But explore the temples and beaches by bicycle and all those grilled dishes and pho will have been well-earned
Vietnam’s former imperial capital, Huế, has the sights – temples, tombs and the Purple Forbidden City – but much of it was destroyed during the “American war” (from 1955 to 1975). The ancient town of Hội An, 100km south, down the coast, is a much more beguiling place to spend a few days, with its lazy river lined with mustard-yellow merchants’ houses, and beaches a few kilometres away. It owes its wonderfully well-preserved state to the silting-up of the Thu Bồn river in the 19th century, which put an end to its importance as a trading post, but helped it escape modern development and US bombing. Yes, it’s touristy, but the old town is surprisingly extensive and can absorb a lot of visitors without losing its dreamy atmosphere. And while much of Vietnam, to both north and south, gets a thorough soaking in summer, the central coast is at its driest and sunniest in May, June and July.
Take a cooking class
Hội An is known for its diverse and excellent food: a legacy of the many nationalities, including Japanese, Chinese and Portuguese, that lived or traded here. It can seem that every other restaurant is offering cooking classes, but the Thuan Tinh cooking day offers more than some. After a visit to the fascinating market to collect ingredients, you board a river boat and putter eastwards along the river to this low-lying island near the river mouth, completing the final stretch by rowing boat. Then it’s on with cooking (and eating) a selection of dishes – fresh spring rolls, crispy pancakes, beef noodle salad and classic pho, say – while enjoying the village atmosphere and watching tiny basket boats navigate the water-coconut-lined waterways.
Explore on a cycle tour
Cars and even motorbikes are banned from the centre of Hội An, so the pushbike is king. Most homestays offer bikes to guests, and joining the many cyclists on the roads provides an instant immersion into local life. To explore further afield, Heaven and Earth cycle tours, run from a quiet street in beguiling An Hội island, across the river from the old town, offers a selection of trips into the countryside and islands close to the city. Choose from an easy few hours with just 9km of cycling along quiet lanes, lunch included, or a more demanding 50km adventure. All take in traditional villages, handicrafts, fragrant rice paddies and rickety floating bridges.
Hit the beach
The nearest beach to town, Cửa Đại, has a severe erosion problem, exacerbated by winter typhoons, which saw most of the sand washed away from the seafront. An Bang beach, further north, is a more appealing prospect, with much less development and plenty of soft sand. Cycle there from town (it’s about 5km) and several persistent old ladies will try to charge you to park your bike, but turn off the main road on the lanes parallel to the sea to left or right and the many cafes and restaurants will let you park in return for purchasing a few drinks. Buy lunch as well and they’ll throw in an umbrella and a pair of sunbeds. There’s also plenty of space for those who want to rock up and lie on their towel.
See where your lunch is grown
Most meals in Hội An include an abundance of the fresh vegetables and herbs that make eating in Vietnam such a delight. And much of it will have come from Tra Que, the fresh-veg village between town and An Bang beach. This small farming community grows everything from fine spring onions to hefty taro root on this flat fertile island in the De Vong river. A couple of enterprises, such as the Water Wheel, offer cooking classes, foot massages and more, but it’s possible to just wander the plots, trying to identify plants and chatting with farmers. A little place called Baby Mustard, to the right across fields from the Water Wheel, will does an excellent cheap lunch. Try the “three friends” – bundles of pork, prawn and mint, tied with spring onion.
Drink bia hơi
After doing the sights in town (temples, ancient houses, chapels, the covered bridge) head south over the central footbridge to An Hội islet, whose riverfront is lined with bars offering ice-cold glasses of the daily-brewed refreshing lager called bia hơi at cheap prices (less than 20p a half pint). It’s delightfully light, with only around 3% alcohol, so it’s easy to while away a couple of hours sipping and watching boats without feeling worse for wear. Try The Island (Dong Hiep Entertainment Area, Hội An 51000), at the eastern point of the islet, for Thu Bồn river views and waterside tables. Spend a few dong on a packet of little, salty, locally grown peanuts from a street vendor, and you’re all set.
Eat cau lao
This Hội An noodle speciality has been eaten in the city since the 17th century. The rice noodles get their brown colour and unusual flavour from being mixed with lye water. Ash for the lye is supposed to come from the wood of the Cham islands 12km off the coast, and the water for the noodles from a particular secret well outside town. How true that all is doesn’t really matter when something is so delicious. The hand-cut noodles are tossed with sliced pork, crunchy rice crackers, spices, big handfuls of fresh herbs and a small amount of super-tasty broth. There are some great versions at stalls in the riverside food market – try Mrs Thu, on the right as you enter from Tran Phu Street. For slightly more space and comfort, and cau lao at just over £1 a bowl, go to Cơm Gà Hương just off main Le Loi Street.
Try a tasting plate
There are often more Vietnamese than westerners at Quan Dau Bac, a tiny wedge-shaped restaurant at the western end (no 147) of main Phan Chau Trinh Street. Most of them will be tucking into bún đậu mắm tôm, a platter of pork, fried tofu, herbs, vegetables and chunks of sticky rice noodle, around a pungent dipping sauce of fermented shrimp. Don’t be put off by the smell of the sauce: its flavour is much more mellow, with an elusive sweetness that combines beautifully with the other ingredients.
Discover street barbecue
For a really cheap dinner on the hoof, wander the north bank of the Thu Bồn river after dark, where dozens of little charcoal braziers are set up with skewers of thịt nướng: grilled pork, chicken or prawns that come with some herbs and greens, and a few rice paper wrappers to roll it up in. The whole thing is then dipped in a spicy peanut tomato sauce, with a few toasted sesame seeds. The skewers cost 30p-40p each, and while some vendors sit in regular spots on the waterfront, they’re just as good bought from a lady who walks around – with a barbecue and the food hanging off her bamboo pole.