Out of all of the places to see in Vietnam, I still keep coming back to lovely, relaxing Hoi An. In fact, I have been to Hoi An three times in the last few months. Hoi An is easy to get to for me as it is in the center of Vietnam and only an approximate 45 minute drive from Da Nang airport (less than an hour flight from Saigon). Hoi An is one of the top tourist destinations in Vietnam, but it still manages to be amazingly charming and quaint, so it is easy to see why it is so popular.
I always stay at the lovely Hoi An Riverside Resort, which has a great river view, is in between the old town and the beach, and has a pool and a pretty good breakfast! The hotel offers great service and the staff are lovely. To rent a bicycle or motorbike, head next door to the local tour agency. The owner is extremely helpful, quite the laugh and his fees are cheaper than the hotels. One time I asked for a map of the surrounding region and finding he had none (after hysterically shouting ‘Moment! Moment!), he hopped on his motorbike and drove fifteen minutes into town to procure one for us.
Usually the first thing I do when I arrive is head to the beach as the town is too hot to walk around in during the mid-day heat. There are actually two beaches to choose from. One, Cau Dai beach is closer to town but recently it has had some big problems with erosion and there are sand bags everywhere trying to keep the beach in place. The city government of Hoi An recently announced that they would no longer allow construction along the beach in an effort to put a stop to the erosion. The second beach, An Bang is a bit further away from town but it hasn't had the same problems with erosion as Cau Dai so it is worth the extra few kilometres. The best part, no matter which beach you go to, is the fresh cheap seafood!
While relaxing on the beach you are sure to be approached by some of the many women and children selling various trinkets, books, DVDs and food. Think about this before you buy from them. Most likely they are not keeping the majority of the profits and by buying from them you are perpetuating the cycle of poverty that keeps them on the beach. I will talk more about this in my next post, but consider donating the money you were going to use to buy trinkets to a reputable NPO that works in the area in order to help these women and children move out of the cycle of poverty they are stuck in.
One great organization in the Hoi An area is Children’s Hope in Action or CHIA, which helps disadvantaged children and enables them to stay in the care of their families. The main focus of CHIA is on health services although they also do some work in education and job training. Volunteers offer support, training and guidance to the Vietnamese staff. Due to the technical nature of the services CHIA offers they only recruit skilled volunteers and require a minimum time commitment of 3 months.
After the beach I usually head into the old town to explore. One cannot help but love the quaint neighbourhood with its cobblestone streets, many-coloured lanterns and French colonial and traditional chinese style buildings. Hoi An is famous for its many tailors and shoe-makers and you can get almost anything made at a fraction of the cost. I like to get shoes made here as otherwise it is impossible to find my size in Vietnam and they specifically measure your feet to ensure the best fit. My favourite tailor is New World Tailor on Tran Phuc street (intersecting with Le Loi) and the shoe shop across the street.
Hoi An is also well known for its fabulous local restaurants and shopping. Below are some of my favourite shops and restaurants. Some of which are social businesses and the profits are helping disadvantaged people and some are simply local businesses, but either way your support helps to the local community and economy.
- White Marble (local business)- The only wine bar in town with a great wine list, excellent, Vietnamese style tapas and lots of people watching opportunities.
- Morning Glory (local business)- which has what I think may be the best Banh Xeo (A kind of Vietnamese pancake) I have ever ha.
- Secret Garden (local business)- which is nestled away from the hustle and bustle. The restaurant not only serves excellent local cuisine but also serves to promote local artists and culture
- Blue Dragon Restaurant (social business)- Blue Dragon Foundation is a charity from Hanoi that I have worked with a couple of times. They support street children with education and skills training. The restaurant offers a portion of their proceeds to the foundation. The food is good although it's nothing to write home about.
- Cocobox Vietnam (local business)- They have great juices and other natural treats, as well they support my friend who makes Saigon Cider which is locally made in Ho Chi Minh City and comes in delicious flavours such as chili or cinnamon!
- Reaching Out Vietnam (social business)- Has a tea house in the old town Hoi An and also a craft shop around the corner. It is a fair trade, social business that works with and trains people with disabilities. Super cute stuff and the tea house is lovely and relaxing!
- Hay Hay Hoi An (local business)- Is a cute art shop next to the Japanese bridge in old town. They work with and promote local artists. If you are looking for some unique art be sure to check out this shop and help support local businesses!
- LifeStart Foundation Fair Trade Shop (social business)- Is a grassroots non-profit that helps disadvantaged Vietnamese people become self-sufficient. The artists receive 100% of the net profits from the products sold in the shop as part of LifeStart's sustainable income projects. You can find some great gifts here.
Finally, if you are looking for a souvenir of your trip I would highly recommend going to the Asian Gallery and bookstore, which features the stunning photography of Rehan, originally from France but he has relocated to Hoi An. His photos of the people and sites of Vietnam are truly breathtaking and what I love in particular about his work is the story behind each photo.
You can follow Rehan's stories on his blog or go visit him in the shop.