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Hoi An - magical town of lanterns


From Ninh Binh I headed south to Central Vietnam to visit the graceful, historic Hoi An, Vietnam's most atmospheric and delightful town. I have to admit I fell in love with this place at first sight. Now that I've seen it during the day and night I can't decide when I love it the most.

From Ninh Binh it was quite a journey. It took me almost the entire day. First I took a bus (2-2.5h, 340000₫), that I've arranged via the hotel reception from Ninh Binh, to Hanoi airport. From Hanoi I flew to Danang (1h, 54 EUR). From Danang airport I took a Grab to my hotel in Hoi An (~1h, 400000₫). 

After I checked in, I went out to have dinner and explore the old town. Hoi An is a culinary hotbed and there are some unique dishes I had to try.

Banh vac ('white rose')
Banh vac ('white rose') is a delicate, subtly flavoured shrimp dumpling topped with crispy onions. This was the starter.

Next to try was cao lau, an amazing dish: Japanese-style noodles seasoned with herbs, salad greens and bean sprouts, and served with slices of braised pork. I developed a passion for drinking coconuts. They are so refreshing!

Cao lau

 The restaurant where I had dinner is called Secret Garden Hoi An, and it was quite secret, hidden on some back alleys. 

Hoi An streets at night with the colourful lit lanterns 

Thu Bon River lighted by the lanterns

Boat rides on the river

The city lights are so charming

The next day I started slowly. The hotel where I'm staying has a small swimming pool and I went there swimming for a bit before I had breakfast. The place where I went for breakfast was close by the restaurant where I had dinner the night before: Buttercup by Rosie's cafe.
Berrylicious smoothie bowl with granola and some fresh fruits
For the afternoon I had booked another free walking tour and until then I just wandered on the lovely streets and checked all the cute shop-houses.

The lanterns are as magical in daylight as they are at night.

Many buildings are bathed in a distinctive golden-yellow hue. It’s like the city is always wrapped in sunshine. Why yellow? Locally it symbolises royalty, luck, pride and prosperity; significant architectural monuments are therefore painted in various shades. Another reason is a little more practical: yellow absorbs less heat and is thus better suited to the humid, tropical weather of Vietnam.
Before the tour started I grabbed quickly a banh mi from Bánh Mì Phượng.

Banh mi
I booked the free walking tour here: And I highly recommend it! I learned so much from our guide about the history of Hoi An.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Hoi An was the international trading centre in Southern Vietnam. Right in this town, Japanese, Chinese, Dutch, Indian traders set up their emporiums or established their own quarters for permanent habitation. The town was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1999, and there are now very strict rules in place to safe guard the Old Town's unique heritage. 
By Unesco decree, more than 800 historic buildings in Hoi An have been preserved, so much of the Old Town looks as it did several centuries ago. Eighteen of these buildings are open to visitors and require and Old Town ticket for admission. Each ticket allows to visit five different heritage attractions. The ticket costs 100000₫(~4EUR). We started with Phung Hung Old House. Just a few steps down from the Japanese Covered Bridge, this is an old house representing the Japanese culture. 
Phung Old House
The balcony offers splendid street views.
Street view towards Japanese Covered Bridge

In the early 17th century, the Japanese who lived in Hoi An town built the bridge over the stream to do business with the local people in the residential area. The two entrances of the bridge are guarded by a pair of monkey gods at one end and of dog gods at the other end. Some tales say that the construction started in the year of the monkey and it was finished in the year of the dog.
The monkey

The dog
Vietnamese people are very superstitious and believe that the zodiac determines the personality traits. I was born in the monkey year and according with the Chinese believe the people born in the year of the monkey are fun, energetic, active. It kinda matches how I've been since I started this journey. The tiger and dragon are the most powerful animals in the zodiac and every parent wants their kids to be born in those years.

Crossing the bridge on the other side we explored the Chinese heritage.
Canton Assembly Hall
Founded in 1786 this assembly hall has a tall, airy entrance, which opens on to a splendid over-the-top mosaic statue of a dragon and a carp. Vietnam has a lot of Chinese influence and in all the historic buildings I've visited I could identify the 4 sacred animals: the dragon, the tortoise, the phoenix and the unicorn. Finally a country who believes unicorns are real! That's why I love Vietnam!
Typical street in Old Town
In the past these houses used to be inhabited by local people but with the town becoming more touristic they moved out and rent them for shops. We visited on house that's still inhabited by the original owners. In this house the women are making the white rose dumplings that are sold on the streets. They know the secret recipe how to make this delicious dish.
The eyes of the house, protecting it from evil spirts
The Vietnamese believe that everything has a soul, that's why you'll notice the houses or boats have eyes at the entrance/front.

The women of the house making white rose dumplings

Marks of the water level 
Every year the town is flooded during the rainy season (October and November). But the locals love water, they believe water brings prosperity. I am so lucky to be able to visit Hoi An during this time. Only 3-4 weeks ago, a big typhoon hit the central part of the country flooding Hoi An and Danang. So far I had only sunny days!
The boats watching the passersby
On the tour was included also a stop to Hoi An Traditional Art Performance Center where we enjoyed some traditional music and dance show.
Traditional music

Dance show with the 4 sacred animals; here they switched the unicorn with the tiger/lion
The last stop of the tour was the Hoi An Central Market. 
Best time to visit the market is early in the morning, when the locals come to do their groceries. That's also the moment when it's very busy. 
There's also a part built more recently where you can get some inexpensive souvenirs. 
Fake money to burn for the ancestors; the exchange rate up there is not that good
Vietnamese people worship their ancestors and once a year or for special occasions they burn joss paper. They believe their ancestors live in the afterlife like them on Earth and by burning this paper they send them wealth. You will be surprised how creative they can be with this. You can find the latest iPhone or iPad, or maybe you fancy a Porsche or a villa? 
After the tour was over I strolled down the streets for a thousand time. And enjoyed a lovely sunset.

For dinner I've went to Quán Cao lầu Bá Lễ - Quán Cao Lầu ngon tại Hội An to try another Hoi An specialities.
Banh xeo
Banh xeo is a crispy savoury rice pancake that I had to roll with herbs in fresh rice paper.

Fried wonton with a salsa-like topping of meat or shrimps

The next day morning I booked a SUP tour in the mangrove forest. I always wanted to try SUP and now I finally did it and I loved it. I was so afraid to stand up at the beginning, my knees were trembling but I did it! It helped a lot to look forward. I was expecting to have a group activity but it turned out to be the only one and that made it even more special. The guide came to pick me up from my hotel by motorbike. He also took me back at the end, and he even showed me the rice paddies near the town. The rice was harvest before the rainy season started and there isn't much to see right now. The SUP tour was 650000₫(~28 EUR). The tour operator is called Hoian Kayak Tours and to make the booking I just emailed them a couple of days before.
The mangrove palm forest
This is a place where a lot of fisherman boats come to fish for leisure or for business.
We did this for about 2h.

After I returned to the town, I went for a delicious brunch at Phin Coffee Hoi An. Only for breakfast/brunch I had Western food, for the rest it was only Vietnamese food.
After brunch I went for another stroll and checked Metiseko shops which are winners of a sustainable-development award. The stores are eco-minded and stock gorgeous clothing and accessories using natural silk and organic cotton. I bought an elegant cotton kimono and some accessories on sale. The designers get inspired from nature and Vietnamese culture. The kimono I've got is inspired by palm leaves. The silk clothing collection is exquisite. My mind is still on a beautiful red maxi-dress sleeveless with print called "Journey to Hoi An under the Full Moon". It's only 275 EUR and it's 100% natural silk. I'll think about it. They have stores also in Ho Chi Minh City so I can decide by then if I'm getting it or not.

After I wrote the paragraph above I went to the store to try it. Unfortunately they didn't have my size but fortunately they can make one on my size. So they will make it and send it to their store in Saigon and I'll pick it from there. Saigon is my last stop in Vietnam. I've indulged myself too much on this trip, but this dress will always remind me of the town's charm.
The place where I had banh my seems to be famous, apparently the best Vietnamese banh my in the world, as featured in No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain 

One last stroll

The Japanese Covered Bridge in night light
I almost forgot to mention the Night Market. It's definitely a must to do in Hoi An. Here you can take photos with the famous colourful lanterns.  

Night Market
Oh, Hoi An, you have been magical! Until we meet again! From Hoi An I'm flying to Dalat, an atmospheric old French hill station with spring-like weather.


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