Hunting for Silk, Adventure and Charm in Hoi An, Vietnam

Hoi An lanterns

Grab your passport and prepare to book a flight – Hoi An, Vietnam is pho king awesome. It takes very little money to enjoy all it has to offer, and the opportunity for puns is endless – rejoice!

After hearing tales from friends about how amazing, affordable and fast the tailors are in Hoi An, and their large selection of high quality silk, my friend Lisa and I set out to Vietnam to get a couple dresses made and find some adventure along the way. Well, after having 19 fabulous garments sewn to order, flipping Vietnamese pancakes onto our heads, weaving mats with locals, downing shots of fire, and two hilarious water buffalo rides, Hoi An exceeded all our expectations and utterly stole our hearts. I will remember this trip pho ever.

Here’s just a bit of the magic of Hoi An, which may just convince you to say “phuc yeah, I need to book a trip there ASAP!” (And if so, I’ve got ya covered with helpful travel tips at the end of this story).

The Charm

Picture yourself walking or riding a bike beneath jewel-toned, glowing lanterns down quaint streets lined with bougainvillea and old French colonial buildings with distinctive Vietnamese flair. Or having dinner under the stars beside the river, watching people in traditional boats placing candle-lit offerings in the slow-moving water. Hoi An is a place of such captivating, unique beauty that most every visitor walks around with an enamored, dazed look on their faces. It’s easy to fall under Hoi An’s charming spell…and to look like a compete and utter loon as you giddily bike through its idyllic little lanes wearing a conical Vietnamese hat.

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There’s much to see in the area, it’s a feast for your eyes. The remarkably well-preserved “Ancient town” is a Unesco World Heritage Site for good reason: old, dark wood-accented Chinese temples and shops sit beside mustard-colored French colonial style buildings, and you can walk across the Japanese covered bridge with its iconic pagoda. And the food…oh God, the food! From fresh summer rolls packed with herbs and veggies, to delicious banh mi sandwiches and addictive rice crackers, the meals are un-pho-gettable.

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Just outside of town are brilliant spring-green rice paddies, veggie villages and soaring hills. And just a few kilometers further away are long stretches of relatively empty beaches. You can’t help but fall in love with Hoi An.

Biking through Hoi An

Don’t fight it – just give in and buy an iconic Vietnamese hat. They are so lightweight, provide great shade, they don’t make you hot, but they will absolutely make you look like a bozo tourist. Totally worth it. And yes, those are new suitcases on the back of our bikes. We had to buy more luggage to fit all the dresses we had made for us, and multiple lanterns. 

The Adventures

There are so many fun and authentic experiences to be had around Hoi An, which can easily keep you busy for a week or more. You can snorkel at nearby Cham Island, take a half-day trip to the fascinating ancient Hindu ruins of the My Son Sanctuary built between the 4th-14th century, learn how to make silk lanterns and cloth, cycle through the countryside, rappel down marble mountain and much more.

Our favorite experience was a combination cooking class, local adventure and farming excursion with Tra Que Water Wheel, which was made even more fun by our absolutely hilarious host, Jessica. From riding bikes through rice paddies, to making and flipping Vietnamese pancakes (some of which ended up on the floor), to paddling a traditional basket boat, eating, planting basil with traditional farming tools and laughing the whole time, it was our most fun and memorable day in Hoi An.

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And yes, it included a stop to ride a friendly water buffalo across a lake beside their organic farm. Just getting up on that big steaming girl was hysterically funny – we were all crying with laughter when the farmer was pushing Lisa up on the buffalo’s back.

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Nailed it, right? I mean, can you even tell which one of us is Beyonce?! 

Another fantastic experience is to take a rural village tour with Mark at Local Buddy Tours or Vespa Adventures. Mark (who works for Vespa Adventures and also owns Local Buddy Tours) and his team will take you on the back of their motorbikes into the villages to meet incredibly friendly locals who weave straw mats for a living, and kindly let you lend a hand. You’ll get to make deliciously crunchy rice crackers with a lady who makes the best in the area. He also took us to a man who makes local hooch in his home: insanely powerful rice wine that can probably burn through titanium. After a shot of that, I felt like a fire-breathing dragon.

Mark is a font of information and so friendly. He was happy to answer all our questions, and he also made us a beautiful picnic out in the rice fields and helped us experience the authentic way of life of people out in the rural areas. We loved every second of it! Here’s a video with some of the highlights of our experience – and yes, please do laugh at our pain while we were trying to drink that evil rice wine:

The Tailoring and Silk

As if Hoi An weren’t amazing enough, the minute you get your first fabulously beautiful, inexpensive and quickly-made tailored garment there, you will likely run around screaming “Hoi An, pho the win!” These are just a few of the pieces they made for me – and forgive my laughably terrible poses. I’m a shitty model:

Here’s how it works: Print out some photos of garments you want made for you, or bring along something you want copied. Go into one of the million-and-one tailors there and search for the fabric and print you like. Then the tailoring assistants will take your measurements, give you a price (which you can always negotiate down), pay a 50% deposit, and come in the next day for a fitting. You can also just rely on the tailoring assistants to make recommendations for garments that would look great on you – we found many of them to be way better at judging that than we are our for ourselves, and they all have tablets full of super cool styles.

We tried out 4 shops – two are higher end tailors within Ancient Town: A Dong Silk (ask for Dong – she’s wonderful) and Yaly (ask for Marina or Sandra). Both shops were absolutely fantastic and created perfect dresses for us that we absolutely adore. They have huge selections of silk and other fabrics, great tailors, and impeccable workmanship.

For even cheaper tailoring that’s still of good quality, you can go to the Cloth Market, just on the outskirts of Ancient Town. We tried out two shops here: the highly rated Shop #52 (which did great work, but they had some serious attitude – wouldn’t recommend that place), and the little-known Shop #45, which created several nice dresses for us for very inexpensive prices.

Just beware – everyone in the cloth business wants your dong. (That pun is for my American friends.) (For those who were not raised among American teenagers, “dong” is slang for a man’s banana. And it’s also the name of the currency in Vietnam.) If you’re wandering around town and looking lost, you will likely be approached by nice ladies asking where you want to go. If you say “the cloth market,” they’ll say: “Oh, that’s where I’m going! I’ll show you the way. I have a shop there so you can come and have a look.” They’re getting a commission from the shops, so they can get a bit aggressive in getting you to order a million garments. So if you don’t like high pressure sales tactics, I’d suggest sticking to the simple game plan of knowing exactly what you want made, taking print-outs with you, going directly to a shop that you’ve pre-selected.

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And here we see the locals building the forms my bra-top dresses. Just a few more rice straws for the pile on the right… 

The Cost of Visiting Hoi An

Since I’m aspiring to become a cheap bastard, I am especially delighted by how little money it takes to enjoy Hoi An. You can really hoard some dongs there. A very nice boutique hotel room will cost you only $40 USD/night, dinner averages around $5, and massages are practically free. And Oscar-worthy silk dresses are made to order for $30-120, depending on your design and fabric choice.

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Yes, you too will be able to retain a fist full of dongs after your trip to Hoi An. (Ah, the puns never end!)

Getting to Hoi An:

Fly into Da Nang airport. Hoi An is a quick 30 minute drive away.

For those of us who live in Penang, Air Asia has a fast, direct, cheap flight to Ho Chi Minh. It’s a quick hop from there to Da Nang.

When to Go:

Holy phuc, it’s hot in Hoi An throughout the year, so just expect to sweat whenever you go. February-May is when it’s least hot, humid and rainy. June through August can experience some downright blazing-hot days, but it’s still tolerable. September-January is the rainy season, which can have torrential downpours that’ll leave you practically swimming down the streets.

How to Beat the Crowds:

Hoi An Ancient Town is quietest in the mornings. It’s also the least sweltering part of the day. Around 11-noon, hoards of tour busses from Da Nang dump out masses of tourists in matching banana-print shirts onto the streets, making it so crowded that you can’t even ride your bike through the thick throngs of people in the afternoon and early evening. So plan your Ancient Town explorations for the mornings, and your out-of-town excursions or massages for the afternoons to avoid the crowds and have a much more fun experience.

Where to Stay:

I’d recommend staying just outside Ancient Town in one of the cute, comfortable boutique hotels that are within walking distance. It’s much quieter outside Ancient Town, which will give you a chance to chill, relax and recharge. The following are some nice and affordable options, which are all around $40USD/night:

Little Hoi An Boutique Hotel and Spa

River Suites Hoi An (which is where we stayed. It’s a lovely little hotel that’s very affordable and has spacious rooms, but bring your ear plugs – it can get loud at night as people like to party beside the river, just out in front of the hotel).

Hoi An River Town Hotel

How Much Time to Spend There:

This depends on what you want to do. We were there for 5 days and it was great – we easily could have spent several more days there. If you’re having clothing made, plan to spend at least 3 days in Hoi An, and be sure to visit the tailors first thing upon arrival to give them the most time possible to create your garments and adjust them after your fittings.

Getting Your Vietnam Visa:

The easiest way to get a visa is to use an online service. Lisa found a great one for us that’s both cheap and reliable: Vietnam Visa Pro. Their service costs only $6 and they make the whole process super easy and painless. And for a small additional fee (I think it was about $20), they will even fast-track you so you can skip the hour-long immigration line.

For your visa, you’ll fill out relevant passport and visitor information, which they’ll prepare into a visa letter for you to print. You’ll need to bring along two passport sized photos of yourself, download their entry and exit form (which they’ll email you), and bring along cash to pay the Vietnamese authorities for your visa – $25 USD for a 1 month visa, $50 for 3 month.

So grab your dong and have a phuc’ing fabulous trip to Hoi An, my friends!

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