Ever since we got back from our Easter holidays in Hoi An, Vietnam, I’ve been meaning to note down what we did as it was a definite tick in the ‘successful family holiday’ box. We've been to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh and Phu Quoc before but Hoi An hands down won our hearts. Now that we are in the tween/teenager phase, the ingredients for an enjoyable holiday have evolved from both adult and child perspectives. As expat parents in a post-covid age, we are enjoying travel again to our neighbouring Asian countries - a big part of why we live where we do - and have a desire to open our children’s eyes to new cultures beyond Singapore.
For our family at least, I’ve concluded that the key to success is to fire up the enthusiasm for doing stuff, be that a physical activity, excursion/course or even a shopping stint with the promise of downtime of their choice, say pool/beach (or time on the dreaded devices), stop for a snack/drink/ice cream.
Similarly with dining out - there is a need to be sufficiently adventurous with food choices that everyone tries new things but it is imperative a restaurant offers something that even the fussiest can find satisfaction from eating - even if that’s just rice. Much like when children are toddlers and activities are framed around nap or mealtimes, I conclude that the success of a holiday is all about hitting the bullseye on doing-relaxing ratio. There will be a time I know where they will join me on my sunlounger for an entire morning reading a book followed by a four hour snore tour of the Vatican but those days are just not here yet. Still, they are lucky devils as my childhood holidays were mostly spent being dragged around ‘boring’ gothic churches in France or walking in the driving rain in Devon.
The flight from Singapore to Da Nang is easy, taking less than a few hours. We flew with Singapore Airlines but Air Asia offer a regular service. Most hotels will include an airport transfer or organise a ride for a small amount. We considered splitting our week-long trip by first staying in the bigger city of Da Nang at one of the plethora of beach fronted, large chain hotels (where you pay breathtaking prices for everything) with the more historic city of Hoi An. In the end we decided to hedge our bets on the booking.com lottery and chose a couple of places in Hoi An - staying first at a slightly faded-glory but spacious hotel at Cua Dai beach then moving to a more boutique set up closer to town for the latter half of the week.
Regardless of where we were, we went into the historic part of town daily as a) the restaurants were so much better (disappointing options available on the beaches) and b) taxi rides into town were inexpensive. As it turned out, the beach provided us with some glorious respite from the super-crowded centre of town - it was packed over the Easter weekend, was stiflingly hot and so we were relieved to come back to the breeze of the Cua Dai by bedtime.
Here’s some of the things we got up to (all were booked while we were in Vietnam not in advance): -
Hoi An is known for their lanterns which cover every corner, nook, tree and building so I knew it would be fun to make some to bring home. We booked a full lantern making course via KLOOK - e.g. starting from scratch, bending bamboo sticks to assemble into the skeletal lantern rather than just covering a pre-made base - and wisely (credit to hubby here, his suggestion) went along first thing in the morning to the earliest class. Smart move as it a) gets sooo hot by lunchtime and b) it got really busy by late morning and then you had less attention from the instructors.
Everyone loved it - not only me and my crafty daughter - but the boys too who are not known to love this kind of thing. This was a family run outfit with brother/sister instructors giving you an overview/history of the lanterns in Vietnam then you set out to make to your own. This involves bending bamboo sticks, tying that up with string then covering them in fabric using (pretty stinky!) glue and completing it by adding a tassel. I’d say we were there for a good three hours which was about the threshold of interest for our children.
FULL MOON LANTERN FESTIVAL
Once a month at the full moon, Hoi An celebrates with a lantern festival. Electricity is cut and the streets of this Unesco world heritage town are lit by thousands of lanterns. The river is full of small boats and you can float small paper lanterns from them or from the bridge. The streets were packed with tourists and lantern/tricket sellers.
We arrived in Vietnam the day after the first anniversary of my father’s passing so lighting these little candles seemed an apt way to honour his memory. Even through the crowded throngs it was a poignant, moving thing for me to watch the children do for Gramps.
SHOPPING / MARKETS
Amble around Tran Phu, Bach Dang, Nguyen Thai Hoc, and Le Loi streets
My daughter takes after me in that she LOVES to mooch and shop, picking up momentos from our trip. The boys in the family have seemingly no-patience for this pastime. Hoi An is lined with market traders selling anything from rattan goods, lanterns, leather shoes (you can get them made-to-size), shell trays, bags, artwork to trinkets. It’s Asia so you haggle over the price. We came home with some cane lanterns, trays, hand painted ceramics as well as the more random bits like a head massager. We saw some amazing artwork in one of the galleries at the top of Le Loi and have been slightly kicking ourselves ever since that we didn't buy a piece. Good reason to go back I suppose.
Bicycles are synonymous with Vietnam and Hoi An is no different - yes, there are many, many motorbikes but Hoi An is awash with push bikes too. Both of our hotels had bicycles that could be used by guests for free as I believe most of the hotels offer. At the last minute, I threw the kids’ helmets into our hand luggage much to the laments and decries of how unnecessary this was from my family. Well, let’s just say Mum knows best - there weren’t any helmets provided and the way the people of HoiAn drive cars and motorbikes….well, I was very relieved that the children had lids on.
Our daughter is only 10 and whilst she’s a decent height, both hotels’ bikes were too big for her to safely ride. We did try to rent a smaller bike but this was pretty much impossible so in the end, Elyse hitched a ride on the back of my husband’s bike (it had a flat seat with foot grips so not a child’s seat, an-anyone’s seat).
We cycled more from the second hotel (better bikes) and concluded it to be a very enjoyable way to get around, navigate through the streets and as long as you ring that bell loudly, we didn't find it too terrifying !
COOKING COURSE AT - LEMON BASIL
Kudos to my husband who found this cooking course - it was absolutely terrific. The full morning consisted of farming, foot massage and cooking (and eating) four iconic Vietnamese dishes course. It was absolutely brilliant and the children really enjoyed it - as well as loving the food - win win ! Super friendly people who run this family-owned farm/cookery school and restaurant and make it engaging and fun for everyone. First of all you learn about their farming techniques trying out a hilarious giant, double watering can, then you are treated to a foot and head massage before getting into the cooking. We made crunchy spring rolls, mango salad, a local speciality pancake and traditional fish dish. We were able to cycle to the Tra Que vegetable village by bicycles from our hotel easily and the whole activity took a full morning. It was just our family a lovely young English couple. Highly recommend.
AN BANG BEACH
We spent several mornings or afternoons at An Bang beach which was just a few minutes down the road from Cua Dai. Cua Dai beach was also very inviting but An Bang much more buzzy. I’ve never seen our children so enthusiastic in big waves - they loved trying to boogie board and bodysurf the white horses at An Bang, spending hours in the water - giving me some much appreciated time to read my book!
We tended to hang on a lounger from Soul Food - free as long as you order some drinks or food which we did. Loved the cold coconut coffee they served. The loungers are removed by 4pm though at which point we decamped to the sand. The beach was really busy with people and also beach sellers - hawking bangles, knick knacks, trinkets etc. My first purchase was a fan which was much needed in the sticky centre of town.
Sam, 02 Lê Lợi street
Both my husband and I got a few pieces of clothes made. Hoi An is known for its many, many tailors. I chose a friendly lady in a small shop over a bigger shop that someone had recommended to me. Instinctively I felt she was the right lady for the job! I had two pairs of shorts made - one in linen with a scalloped edge and another white cotton broderie, each for about $40-50 SGD. I also had my tablecloth cotton dress made and I think that cost around $65. Husband got a couple of pairs of chinos and a pair of shorts made at a bigger outfit down the road - he was happier with the shorts over the trousers but everything was well made with a good fit. My suggestion would be to go with something to copy if you can - a safer option and one that will likely have less need for alterations.
EATING OUT -
A HUGE appeal of Vietnam is the cuisine - we all love Asian food and joke our children are more Asian than British in their love of rice, spring rolls, noodles, dumplings and Asian flavours (it can be problematic being constantly confronted by sandwiches and jacket potatoes when we go back to Blighty…). Vietnamese cuisine with its roots and influences from french, chinese, malay & cambodian cooking has always been a favourite. Hoi An’s restaurant scene did not disappoint though we found the best places were in town - not so many good finds beach side. As to whether we were spring-rolled-out by the time we got home? Hmm, borderline yes.
HOA HIEN 33 Trần Quang Khải, Cẩm Châu, Hội An, Quảng Nam, Vietnam
So good we went twice. It’s a little bit off the beaten track but worth it - situated on the river, we sat alfresco under the lights out the back of the restaurant. It was all utterly delicious with the beef in pernilla leaves and white rose dumplings stand out dishes. Charming staff and afterwards you can amble back into the hustle of town along the river.
106 Nguyen Thai Hoc St, Hoi An 560000 Vietnam
Taste explosions - my son said this was the best place for Banh Mih and I had the best salad and spring rolls. We also ate at their sister restaurant Cargo Club sitting outside on the roof terrace.
HAI CAFE COURTYARD & BBQ
98 Nguyễn Thái Học, Phường Minh An, Hội An
Another favourite that we ate at twice - not one we researched online but stumbled across and loved. They have a huge bbq and beef that cooks for over eight hours in a giant pit. Yum.
LE CABANON BISTRO
53 Công Nữ Ngọc Hoa, Phường Minh An, Hội An, Quảng Nam
Super close to the Japanese Bridge - a tiny French run bistrot with daily menu which was delicious - the kids even had crepes and I got an Aperol spritz. Heaven.
BANH MI PHUONG
2b Phan Chu Trinh, Cẩm Châu, Hội An
Maybe too authentic for our kids to enjoy (traditional banh mi has a layer of pate in it) but we wanted to try this famous place that Anthony Bourdain recommended so we cycled over there and wrestled our way inside (it was PACKED).
AN BANG BEACH
We weren’t thrilled by the beach food restaurants. We ate at La Plage for one lunch and it was OK (and very busy with a bus-load of tourists that arrived just after we did). Soul Food was much better for lunch and The Deckhouse had an awesome, Bali Potato head vibe but the food was just so-so.
I hope this gives you a flavour of what Hoi An has to offer. We first stayed at the Hoi An Beach Resort (very well priced, large rooms if a little old in style, two pools, right on Cua Dai Beach) and then moved closer to town to the Anio Boutique Hotel which was a bit of a step up in price and luxe level. They kindly upgraded us to the penthouse rooms (as no adjoining rooms were available) and we were given complimentary massages and meals which we greatly appreciated!
One last thing to add is that we found everything to be really reasonably priced (by Asian standards!) which really meant we could do so many different things. We didn’t even get around to basket boats, side-car tours or boat trips - will have to leave that for our next trip.
Oh and if you're wondering what the title of this journal posts is all about - go to Hoi An and you'll soon find out !
Author - Emily Cheetham, Designer/Founder, Elyse & i
All opinions are author's own and not reflective of any paid advertisements or affiliations