1 STREET FOOD
As with most places in Vietnam, the street food in Hoi An is mouth-wateringly delicious and very affordable. Hoi An, in particular, has several local specialties, including white rose dumplings and cao lau, which are fat noodles served with pork and mint. Authentic cao lau noodles are soaked in water collected from ancient Cham wells around Hoi An. White rose shrimp dumplings are arranged prettily on a plate in the shape of a rose. The dishes are on the menu in every restaurant in the city and usually cost under $2.
2 OLD TOWN
Soak up the UNESCO World Heritage charm of the Old Town. During the 16th and 17th centuries,
Hoi An was a busy spice trading centre. These days, the historic quarter is an enchanting streetscape of old Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese houses, once occupied by merchants whose homes and shop houses have been converted into galleries, antique stores, restaurants and bars.
Buy a ticket at the Hoi An Office of Tourist Services, 120,000 dong ($6), for entry to 22 historic temples, museums and assembly halls. See hoianancienttown.vn
3 THE RIVER
Before its spice trading heyday, Hoi An was a major port of the ancient Cham Kingdom between the seventh and 10th centuries. Its success was partly due to its accessible location on the banks of the Hoai (also known as Thu Bon) River. These days, the picturesque waterscape of colourful wooden boats draws people to the river, where you can soak up the historic ambience on a boat ride. A boat trip costs about $3 an hour.
4 IT'S EASY ON THE BUDGET
Travellers looking for a holiday that won't break the bank will love this destination. A bottle of beer costs between $1 and $2 in a restaurant, a bowl of pho around $1.50, a massage in a parlour between $5 and $10. Hotels by the beach and in the Old Town cater for a range of budgets. A room in a budget hotel can cost as little as $20 a night, while a locally owned four-star resort by the beach costs between $130 and $200 a night.
5 ROMANTIC ATMOSPHERE
A stroll at sunset; cocktails in a character bar; an al fresco dinner at dusk in a riverside cafe in the Old Town are the ingredients that makes Hoi An an ideal place for couples. The historic quarter and its lovely riverside setting are undeniably romantic. In the 1900s, wealthy French traders built grand villas on the long blocks between the road and the river. One of the original villas, built by a French family who used it as a home and office for several decades, is now one of the town's most famous eateries, Brothers Cafe. See brothercafehoian.com
6 THE BEACH
If reclining on a lounger with a cocktail in hand is your idea of a beach holiday, you won't be disappointed. The main tourist beach, Cua Dai, is about five kilometres from the Old Town. Cua Dai isn't the best surfing beach but it has a choice of beachside resorts that offer activities such as wind surfing, kayaking and jet skiing. The locally owned Palm Garden Resort has lovely landscaped gardens and great cocktails. See palmgardenresort.com.vn
7 GOLF COURSES
Golfers take note. The coastal strip between Hoi An and Danang (30 kilometres away) is developing a reputation as a prestigious golfing destination. There are three world-class golf courses: the Greg Norman-designed Danang Golf Club; 2010 Ryder Cup-winning captain Colin Montgomerie's links course; and Laguna Lang Co GC, designed by Nick Faldo. Luxury villa green fees at Danang Golf Club are $100 (weekdays), $135 (weekends), dananggolfclub.com.
8 GREAT SHOPPING
Hoi An's grid of historic houses is a retail therapy nirvana, jam-packed with galleries, souvenir, craft, clothing and shoe shops. Arrive with an empty suitcase and you'll fill it in no time. With more than 400 tailors and rows of shoemakers, you can have shoes and clothes custom made for a lot less than it would cost to buy off the rack at home. Some of the designs on display are a little dated so it's a good idea to bring a favourite suit or dress for the tailor to copy. Tailors and shoemakers work swiftly and can complete an entire wardrobe in a day.
9 CHINA BEACH
Known for its starring role in the movie Apocalypse Now, China Beach conjures images of helicopters, surfing and napalm. The beach was where American ground combat units waded ashore to establish a base in Vietnam. Seven years of turmoil followed the first landing. After US forces withdrew from Danang in 1972, China Beach became famous worldwide. It was also the title of a popular 1980s television series depicting a field hospital during the war. These days, it's a popular spot for holiday makers.
10 COOKING CLASSES
With access to fresh produce, farmers' markets and a long culinary tradition, Hoi An is a top spot to learn Vietnamese cooking. Many restaurants in town offer cooking classes, including Morning Glory, which was one of the first cooking schools in Hoi An, and the Red Bridge Cooking School, which is a pleasant river boat ride from the centre of Hoi An. Red Bridge has a tranquil riverside setting away from the clamour. There's a restaurant, bar and swimming pool. The cooking class is hands on and entertaining. A half-day cooking school costs $29. See visithoian.com/redbridge.
11 BICYCLES AND CYCLOS
Unlike Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, where being on two wheels is not for the faint hearted, Hoi An's Old Town is a breeze to cycle around. Hiring a bicycle is cheap (about $2 a day) and bicycles are available in the Old Town and through most hotels. As the weather is often warm and humid, a cyclo (three-wheeled bicycle pedalled by a hard-working driver) is a more relaxing means of transport. Expect to pay about $4 an hour (including tip).
12 THE MARKETS
Mangostene, rambutan and papaya are some of the sweet juicy tropical fruits sold in abundance at Hoi An's lively produce market. The market is a kaleidoscope of colour and a hub of activity. Make sure to visit first thing in the morning for the freshest produce. Look for Vietnamese spices, which are sold in sealed packets and can be brought home as gifts. Bot Ngu Vi Huong (five aroma powder) is great for seasoning meat. See wendywutours.com.au.
Being a coastal region, many locals are expert fishermen so visiting a fishing village and experiencing the life of a fisherman is a key cultural experience. Tours offer visitors a chance to learn to fish like a local. You help lift the big fishing nets out of the water, use baskets to scoop the fish out of the nets and spread the nets in the water again.
14 FUSION COCKTAILS AND CUISINE
Beyond the run-of-the-mill street cafes, fusion food and drinks, there is a trend for Vietnamese gourmet dining. Restaurants such as Ancient Faifo Restaurant and Morning Glory dish up creative cuisine that looks as beautiful as it tastes. The meals are a twist on traditional dishes and are stylishly presented. Think chocolate tempura and ice-cream. As the sun goes down, a table in a restaurant in the Old Town is an excellent way to wind down with a cocktail or two, or three. Mango martini or dragon fruit daiquiri, anyone? See ancientfaifo.com.vn.
15 MY SON TEMPLES
Fifty kilometres from Hoi An, My Son is a collection of 70 Hindu temples dedicated to Shiva. Constructed between the 4th and 14th centuries, it was the spiritual capital of the Champa rulers, often compared to Borobudor and Angkor Wat. Much of My Son was destroyed in the Vietnam War but there are enough structures remaining to make it a worthwhile day trip. Indiana Jones would love it.
16 KIM BONG ISLAND
A ferry ride from Hoi An, Kim Bong Island is a leap into the past, with a village atmosphere and rural scenery. No cars are allowed so rent a bicycle. The island is a woodworking centre, where generations of craftsmen have been responsible for many of the historic buildings in the ancient capital of Hue as well as Hoi An's Old Town.
17 VISIT A MUSEUM
The Old Town has a few museums that offer insights into aspects of Hoi An's past. These include the Museum of Trade Ceramics, which showcases Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese ceramics from the 16th to 18th centuries, the Museum of Folk Culture, located in the Old Town's largest wooden house, and the Museum of History and Culture, which has photographs, maps, statues and artefacts from different eras.
18 VISIT A TEMPLE
Temples, pagodas, and shrines abound, including those built built by Chinese communities. Some are rather impressive, such as the Ong pagoda (24 Tran Phu Street), built in 1653 in honour of an ancient Chinese general of China's "three kingdom" and the 17th century Phuc Kien (or Fukien) Assembly Hall (46 Tran Phu Street). The hall was built by the largest Chinese ethnic group in Hoi An, the Fukien. In the pagoda, prayer coils hang from the roof and impressive statues of red and green-skinned deities grin from behind glass cabinets. A statue of the goddess Thien Hau bestows protection and luck to sailors.
19 CHAM ISLANDS
About 20 kilometres to the east of Hoi An is a string of islands with beaches and lush forested hills. Only one of the eight Cham Islands is inhabited with fishing villages. A day trip offers the opportunity to explore, swim, snorkel and scuba dive. There are dive sites suitable for various levels of diving, include coral gardens, reefs and underwater pinnacles. See vietnamscubadiving.com.
20 MID-AUTUMN MOON FESTIVAL
Halloween meets Thanksgiving each August when the streets of Hoi An become a fairyland. Children carry colourful lanterns fashioned into animal shapes during Tet Trung Thu (or Mid-Autumn Moon Festival). Shops sell sweet moon cakes with a variety of fillings such as lotus seeds, ground beans, orange peels and green beans.
The writer travelled to Vietnam as a guest of Wendy Wu Tours and Cathay Pacific.