Made to measure: eat, drink and shop your way through Vietnam’s ancient trading port of Hoi An
Published in Australian Doctor 29th May 2009
“You buy more? You buy more?” variations on this refrain are as familiar as strange dreams on a sleeper train to the traveling ear in many parts of the world, but for once I’m not feigning deafness or trying to slip away into the crowd. I’m in a made to measure tailor’s shop in Hoi An on Vietnam’s South Central Coast, and I’m seriously tempted.
Hoi An has long been famous for its commerce. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was an important trading port for a medley of Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Indian and French sea merchants, and from the seventh to the tenth centuries its wealthy Champa residents controlled the regional spice trade.
Hoi An’s Old Town is a UNESCO world heritage site, and there is a distinctly international flavour in the air at its riverside heart - the Old Town. From the quaintly shuttered, historical French and Chinese style houses lining the cobbled laneways, to the unique Japanese Covered Bridge that straddles an offshoot of the Thuy Bon River, Hoi An will charm even the most jaded of travelers.
Its protection means that the Old Town is blissfully car and bus free. Motorbikes are still allowed, and it seems there is an easyrider touting for business on every corner, but unless you plan on going further afield – say to nearby Cua Dai Beach (the legendary China Beach of American GI R&R fame), to scuba diving hotspot the Cu Lao Cham Marine Park, or to the ancient Cham city of My Son – Hoi An is easy to get around on foot. Hiring a bicycle, complete with basket, is also a fabulous way to take in the scenery local style.
But back to the tailor’s shop, where I am torn between a jacket in this cut or that, red or blue or green. Do I want a zip or buttons? Perhaps a hood? Patterned silk lining, or plain? And then there are the trousers, skirts, shirts, dresses, ties, suits, and shoes to navigate; all well made, cut price potential additions to my wardrobe. Like the heritage houses open for view, businesses here have often been in the family for generations, and they’re concerned that everything is just right.
Local crafts, from handbags and jewelery to traditional tea sets, lanterns and musical instruments are also in abundance. Shopping works up an appetite, and luckily Hoi An is a foodie’s delight. With local and French-fusion style restaurants dotted about at regular intervals, one need never go without.
Dine on the cheap by stocking up on fresh fish and produce at the early morning food market, or go all out at restaurants like Cargo, or the Mango Rooms on Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, where Mick Jagger once called in for a bite.
Be sure to try local specialties like cao lau, doughy flat noodles mixed with croutons, bean sprouts and greens, topped with pork slices and served in a savoury broth, or white rose, delicate steamed dumplings stuffed with shrimp. If you want to improve your culinary skills, there are many cooking classes on offer here, like Hai Café on Tran Phu Street, which offers an evening class, followed by dinner. Just take care not to overdo it - after all, you don’t want to outgrow your tailoring – it will be a perfect fit.
Visas and inoculations: Australian passport holders need to arrange a tourist visa in advance, available by post/in person from the Vietnamese Embassy. Visit www.vietnamembassy.org.au for information and application forms. Various vaccinations are recommended; check with a travel medicine clinic.
Getting there: Hoi An is a half hour taxi ride from Da Nang international airport. Various international carriers offer flights to Da Nang, see your local travel agent. Connect domestically with Vietnam Airlines, Pacific Airlines and Jetstar Pacific, or make the journey by overnight train from Hanoi (791 km, 15 hours) or Saigon (935 km, 18 hours).
Where to stay: Quality accommodation abounds in Hoi An. Recommended: An Hoi Hotel, a short walk across the Thu Bon River from the Old Town. With modern, comfortable and well serviced rooms from $25/night for a double room, it’s a bargain. More upmarket options include the Pho Hoi Riverside Resort ($50/night), or the luxurious Hoian Riverside Resort and Spa located 3km from the town centre (US$165/night).
More information: Visit www.guidevietnam.com/, www.tripadvisor.com or www.hoiantravel.com.