Unwind in Hoi An
January 1, 1970
by Kathryn Taylor
Honeymoon in Hoi An, Vietnam
Arriving at Auckland airport two days after getting married, I had my passport, a suitcase full of ‘kinda warm, and kinda cold clothes, and absolutely no idea where our destination would be. Hubby had decided that organizing the honeymoon was going to be his surprise for me. No complaints from me – do you know how much planning can go into a wedding? A blissful retreat? Backpacking? Beaches? Mountains? Having already traveled to multiple continents across the world, I was game for anything. After being told at the ticket counter that our destinations were different (That would have been a great honeymoon right?), my hubby lets me in on the first destination for our travels. We were going to be going back to Hoi An, a place that we had visited together as friends a couple years prior.
After missing our connecting flight in Ho Chi Minh to take us to Da Nang, the closest airport to Hoi An, we eventually turn up in the middle of the night at our hotel in Hoi An. Of course, everyone is in bed and they have ‘cancelled our booking’ even though we had, of course, already paid for the week’s worth of accommodation. After some fumbling through some explanations, and eventually being led to an already prepared room, we find out the following day, that out of the 50 rooms they have available at the hotel, we are the only guests….welcome to Vietnam.
Accommodation in Hoi An can vary in cost from $10 NZD for a single room with no aircon (what we stayed in our first visit to Hoi An), to $50 NZD (big hotel, serviced big rooms, buffet breakfast included) to probably an unimaginable amount that like most travelers going to Vietnam, we probably couldn’t afford. Vietnam, is not a place to go if you want to spend outrageous amounts of money, put your feet up beside the pool, and never leave the resort. It is a place to explore, hire a bike, eat incredibly diverse ethnic food, and do it all on a shoestring budget.
Budget in mind, this week in Vietnam was going to be our ‘splash out’ week. Fancy accommodation (We stayed in the Bach Dang Hoi An Hotel), whatever food we wanted, whatever activities we wanted. Of course…our splashing out added up to about $7 a meal, drinks all included!
Hoi An’s attractions
The two most note worthy things about Hoi An are 1. Cheap beer and good food, and 2. Its tailor made clothing.
Cheap Beer and Food
Beer starts in price from about 15cents a glass, and believe it or not, it is actually relatively good. Not amazing, but ‘good’. Poured out from small keg-like vats, our mission while we were there was to find the cheapest beer, and to eat and drink from a different restaurant each meal. And believe me when I say….there are SOOO many restaurants! We could have stayed for three months and still been finding new digs to try out. Of course, saying that, after we found a few amazing restaurants with cheap cocktails (for me), good beer (for him) and tasty food, we may have abandoned our mission to always go somewhere different.
Everything is within walking or biking distance (provided your accommodation isn’t too far out) which suited us perfectly. Although please don’t drink too much 15cent beer if you are biking.
Seeing as I’m on the topic of food, one fantastic activity that we did (and which you should too) was sign up for a couple of cooking classes. Although I may add that you get what you pay for here. The Red Bridge Cooking School did the whole shebang…English speaking guide, visit to the market, ingredients laid out all finely chopped and ready to be added to your culinary creation, and a three course meal (one course including tamarind rubbed fish wrapped in banana leaf – devine). This costs around $33 each, which for the experience, was amazing (note – this is the expensive one). One of our favorite eateries however, had non-English speaking people serving, but at $7.50 (for both of us) for a class, we thought that it could be worth trying out. Turning up, we were taken out back to where they prepare their food (a table, a bench, and a concrete floor – fresh ingredients in a bowl under the table). Here we followed what they did, as they demonstrated with their hands how much of which ingredient to add, what they were doing, and laughing at our poor attempts to communicate (we were making a hot pot – which I’ll tell you about soon).
Let me tell you though…not everything is about how well done it is. Despite the complete difference in styles, preparation and ‘tourist-friendly’ abilities to put on a cooking class for us, we still wouldn’t be able to tell you which was our favorite. The hot pot was incredible, and so unbelievably simple to make, but our laughter coupled with the beautiful friendliness of our non-English speaking friends, completely made up for any lack of a ‘cooking class’. And really, we would have been paying a similar amount just to eat the meal anyway, so why not have a chance to meet the locals.
More Food Stuff
Having since left Vietnam, we now use their fresh perspective to cooking all the time – simple fresh ingredients, with a max of 2-3 flavours! Vietnamese flavours can be split between lemongrass, garlic, chilli and coriander – if you use lemongrass, don’t use coriander – simple!
And before I forget – the hot pot is an absolute must try (As is phó bo)! On our first trip to Vietnam, we had a guy trying to demonstrate horns on his head to tell us that ‘bo’ meant beef or cow. The hot pot is basically water, with thinly sliced meat (mostly ‘bo’) and veges put in it, and cooked over a flame. (Yes – that is soup in western culture…but this is so much more than soup). Share it between two or three of you, and try it with a bun too.
I have talked about food way too much already, so maybe I should switch and talk about the tailor made clothing. With hundreds of tailors to choose from, it can be overwhelming. And shop owners can be very pushy…so my advice…find someone fast to make whatever you want, and then tell every other shop owner that practically tries to drag you inside their shop that you have already got clothes made. It generally takes a minimum of 2 days for your clothes to be made, so go at the start of your visit, and make sure you give your tailor a time limit. And the possibilities are endless. Suits, dresses, jackets, and leather boots –just make sure you have room in your luggage, as it is well worth buying something while you are there. As a guide price, a suit cost us $120 USD for a 3-piece wool/cashmere blend suit with a shirt. My fancy formal dress cost around $70 (we paid too much for that), and a beautiful woolen coat for my hubby cost around $40-60. Leather boots – $50. Or course, you can also buy t-shirts for around $5-10, plus whatever knick-knacks you can find. We used ‘Peace’ Tailor and couldn’t have been happier with their work. They even give you the option of keeping your measurements in case you want to order another suit once you have left.
As to other activities during the day (I will try and find something that is non-food related), hire a bike. At $1-2/per day, it is a great way of getting out and visiting places, some of the top among them, the rice paddies, and the beach. This would have had to have been one of our favourite experiences over the whole trip. Most of the ‘real Vietnam’ that we saw, was while we were pedaling around on our bikes. We had the opportunity to meet amazing locals, and see fascinating sights along the way. With two main beaches in close proximity to Hoi An, restaurants are also prevalent along the shore. You do have to leave your bike at a ‘bike storage’ area for a fee, and it is well worth hiring a locker for your clothes/valuables while swimming at the beach too. We were warned to not take much cash on us while heading about, and while this theory never got tested by any burglaries…we were still glad that we followed this advice. Take enough cash to get by each day (yes – cash is better than card), and just make sure you have insurance for things like your camera.
Hoi An really is the perfect spot to stop, relax and unwind. Of course, the first time we visited, we turned up on an overnight bus first thing in the morning, and had all of two days to visit everything, get our tailor-made clothes created, and move on with the next overnight bus…but if you get the chance, stay a few more days, eat some good food, take a cooking class, don’t drink too much beer, go biking and swimming, and just enjoy.
By the way, my husband accidentally let slide the next place we were going to be heading on our honeymoon…Europe here we come.