Hoi An's UNESCO heritage-listed old town with a wonderfully ancient Japanese Bridge as its centrepiece, was miraculously untouched by the Vietnam-American War. What survives is a living museum of traditional early 19th century architecture and some. It's mostly closed to motorised traffic leaving pedestrians to wander carefree along serene lantern-lit streets. Alongside the old town, the Thu Bon River and its islands provide tranquil terrain to explore by boat and bike. Ten minutes out of town there are beaches to relax on.
Cam Nam Village, across a bridge from the old town, is perfect bike riding terrain, with a circular paved route near impossible to get lost on. Traditional rural Vietnamese life plays out here in schoolyards, open-fronted homes, temples and overgrown acreages. Boat building is the main trade and you'll see colourful timber boats up on stumps. Traditional basket boats dot the waterways that run through the village. The owner won't be far away and he'll give you a ride for a small fee.
Tracking down traditional Hoi An dishes is a good way to navigate the food scene. Start with pork noodles, known as cao lau, at one of the stalls in the Central Market food hall on Bach Dang St. Hai Cafe (visithoian.com) does unforgettable banh xeo – crispy herb-stuffed pancakes – in an old yellow terrace with a modern fit-out. To make white rose dumplings, or banh bao vac, find your way to aptly named Serene Garden (hoianserenegarden.com) for a cooking class amid orchids and ponds.
Walking across the dear old Japanese Covered Bridge is a must. Originally built to link the Japanese community with the Chinese quarters (Hoi An was a major international port town from the 17th to 19th centuries), it retains its elegant arch and Japanese ornamentation. While you're on the history trail, Phung Hung Ancient House built in 1780 is an endearing two-storey wooden structure typical of the commercial residences in 19th-century urban Vietnam.
Go shopping. O Collective (facebook.com/OCollectiveHoiAn/info/), in an old town terrace shop, stocks emerging Vietnamese brands including 0-Thala and Wear Untucked. Contemporary Metiseko's (metiseko.com/) Vietnamese silk clothing, accessories and homewares are made in Hoi An. The town's profusion of mannequin-fronted tailor shops offer relatively cheap tailor-made clothes and shoes. (Part of any holiday here is the happy back-and-forth between tailor and hotel for fittings). Quality and price vary enormously, but one stands out: Yaly Couture (yalycouture.com), a teak fronted boutique with an interior that takes you back to Indochine.
It's on the radar of backpackers, flash packers, families and honeymooners so take your pick. Cheap and mid-range hotels, such as An Huy Hotel (anhuyhotel.com/), are dotted around the old town and have plenty of character. Beachside Boutique Hoi An Resort (boutiquehoianresort.com) is ideal for families with space for kids to run around. If you've got coin treat yourself to a riverfront suite at French colonial-inspired Anantara Hoi An Resort (hoi-an.anantara.com). Breakfast here is served on the balcony, with the ceiling fans whirring overhead, or have an evening beverage in the lantern-lit garden.
Don't expect the cheaper local tailors to be clothes designers – their forte is expertly copying clothing, not making bespoke items. With this in mind, pack your favourite dresses and shirts so the tailor can make replicas of them. The fun bit is choosing the fabric and having a new wardrobe that costs a quarter of the price it would at home.
Penny Watson was a guest of Anantara Hoi An Resort.