When planning a holiday, each family has their own unique mix of must-haves to make their time away just right. For my family, our aim is always to find a place where we can combine relaxing on a beach with bursts of adventurous activity with delicious food. In our recent trip to Hoi An we found all three!
The beach at Hoi An
We decided to stay 5km outside of the busy hub of the Hoi An ancient town at Aira Boutique – a small 40 room hotel nestled among mango and banana trees only a one minute walk from An Bang beach.
As a four star hotel, Aira was a bit of a splurge for us (a decision made as a reward for enduring a long hazy period in KL) but it was absolutely worth it. The lovely staff, the family friendly rooms, the easy vicinity to head to the beach or the bustle, and the amenities – including a spa, two pools, a small playground, a well stocked library and restaurant – made it a very special five day stay. An honourable mention must be made to the breakfasts (the whole family agreed it was the best buffet breakfast we have ever had!) and the free bike hire that catered for all four of us.
Every day at Aira, thanks to young kids and the one hour time difference between Vietnam and Malaysia, we would wake up in time to wander down to the beach to watch the sun rise – and we were not the only ones. Each morning, An Bang’s white sandy shores were filled with people – people swimming, people jogging, people stretching, and people buried up to their necks in sand, who we assumed were asleep until they sat up abruptly, vigorously rubbed sand all over their skin, and ran into the waves.
It was pretty special to be a part of these morning rituals, to quietly build sandcastles while the bustle of just another day began all around us. And then, as it grew closer to 7am and our stomachs began to grumble, we’d stay just a little longer to watch fishermen come in from the ocean in their boats shaped like huge baskets, gliding through the waves, standing up and using their bamboo sticks to navigate the current onto the shores with their morning haul.
A peaceful and pristine place
Later in the day, the beach became busy in other ways. The restaurants would play pop music, the beach lounges under coconut leaf topped umbrellas would become occupied, the speed boats would pull squealing tourists into the air to paraglide over our heads, and the usual reading pages of a book in between swimming and sunscreen applications and dealing with sand in eye meltdowns would resume. However, even on its busiest times, the beach didn’t feel like it was uncomfortably full. Especially at sunrise and sunset, with its pristine waters and gentle waves breaking on white sand as long as the eye could see, An Bang beach was a very peaceful place to be.
The (relatively) adventurous activities in Hoi An
Hoi An ancient town is UNESCO heritage listed, and home to an incredible fusion of architecture with Chinese, French, Vietnamese and Japanese influences harking back to the 17th century. Surrounded by waterways, and closed off to cars for most of the day, it’s a wonderful town to wander – either on foot, on a bike, or on one of the many boats floating down the canals.
Hoi An at night
At night, Hoi An takes on an extra sense of magic as people float candles down the river in paper lanterns, and many of the buildings are illuminated with thousands of colourful lights. There are world renowned tailoring shops dotted all over the town, ready to make you a reasonably priced custom designed outfit in only a few days, or you can choose from many ready-made summer clothes and leather goods – the whole town is a shopping lover’s delight. For when your feet get tired of wandering, there are hundreds of restaurants where you can take a rest, watch the crowds, and eat delicious food. We loved that you can just as easily eat noodles in the front of someone’s house, while the tv plays soap operas and the restaurant owner’s children do their homework sitting next to you, as you can (theoretically, if you didn’t have our two children with you) saunter into a fancy restaurant for a three course, full trimmings, candlelit dinner.
And for those wanting to explore outside of Hoi An or the beach, there are plenty of activities at your fingertips – from cooking classes to fishing trips to water buffalo rides – all depending on what your interests and budget are.
We chose to take an eco-tour that had been recommended by a friend. Our lovely guide, Tuong, took us up the river in our very own boat to learn about traditional fishing techniques from local fisherman.
Ecotour on the river
Sitting in two small boats in the middle of the river, the fishermen taught us about the bamboo pulley system they use to reel in their enormous nets, and we even got to haul up our very own catch! This was followed by a cruise around the coconut jungle in a traditional basket boat, and a visit to a fishing village to learn how fish sauce is made. We ended this half day trip wandering/eating our way through a night market.
It was an unforgettable experience, and I would recommend our tour company and our guide very much – however I would suggest you ask any company you choose about which area of the coconut jungle you will be visiting, and how many others are likely to be there at the same time as you. I had pictured us peacefully cruising through the jungle learning about the history of the region as the children learned to catch crabs and the sun filtered through the groves. Which, to be fair, did all happen, just alongside hundreds of people clearly less in the mood for peaceful sunsets and more for cruising through the jungle in swaying basket boats while singing karaoke and dancing along to K-Pop music blasting from boom boxes bobbing alongside them. While my five-year-old and I found it all pretty overwhelming, my husband and eight year old daughter loved this part, and would recommend requesting this experience to anyone!
Riding bikes through the fields
The other highlight of our trip was riding bikes through the farmlands. Before or after the full heat of the day, we would hop on the free bikes at our hotel and cruise through the sleepy village we were staying in. Within ten minutes, we could ride over the freeway (traffic lights made this step a lot less harrowing than it could have been), over the bridge and into sprawling rice and vegetable farms. We could ride gently along (motor)bike paths, spotting water buffalo eyeing us from among tall grass with bright white herons perched on their backs, or, later in the day, writhing happily in a large puddle of mud. Within the farms we would see people going about their day, working in the fields, as well as a few other tourists. Just a tip – if you’re planning on riding anywhere in Hoi An, it would be worth bringing your own bike helmets. While bikes are readily available to rent, helmets are not.
Food in Hoi An
Oh, the food! So much of it, and so delicious. Our hotel was wedged between the beach and a strip of houses that doubled as restaurants, massage parlours and tailors. Our favourite restaurant here was called Tamarind Tree, which served up Vietnamese fare such as Cau Lao, pho, banh mi and fresh scallops. But every place we went around Hoi An, we found something tasty. And it was surprisingly easy to find child friendly street food for our kids, who are pretty adventurous little foodies as long as there is no chilli – something that can make sampling street food in other Asian countries quite a challenge!
When to visit Hoi An
We took our trip at the very start of October. The monsoon season begins to reach Hoi An around late October, and can go on until February. This means unpredictable typhoons and potential flooding for a good portion of the year. Some locals we spoke to suggested that the best time to visit Hoi An is between February and April, after the rains but before the hottest months of the year. However, we found early October to be beautiful, and also not very busy – likely thanks to the looming threat of storms keeping many tourists at bay! Unless, of course, you happen to be in a basket boat in the middle of a coconut jungle.