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Suyin Lee's Travel Black Book

Vietnamese city of Hoi An offers history and romance

Australian Suyin Lee loves the city's laidback atmosphere and its proximity to the beach

Who: Suyin Lee, 46, managing director, Singapore, of Flight Centre Travel Group. The Australian and her husband Neil Thyer, 42, have lived in Singapore for five years.

Favourite destination: Hoi An, Vietnam

Why: A Unesco World Heritage Site, Hoi An's Old Town is a well- preserved example of a South-east Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The shophouses and buildings have a mixture of Japanese, Portuguese and Chinese influences.

The city has everything I love - a laidback atmosphere, proximity to a beach, great street food, friendly people, history and culture. I have visited the city with my parents, husband and colleagues four times in the past three years.

Favourite hotel

Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa (Cua Dai Beach, Hoi An Town; tel: +84-51-0392-7040; www.victoriahotels.asia/en/hoi-an) for its French colonial charm and seaside location. It has the best of both worlds, being close to the ancient town and the beach, with amazing food and great service.


Ms Suyin Lee (above) has travelled to Hoi An four times in the last three years. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SUYIN LEE

The staff always look after me like I'm family - the pillow gifts are a lovely touch, featuring crafts from local artisans and gourmet produce. The hotel has motorbikes with side cars and you can arrange for a ride in one through the countryside to see local life.

Starting from US$170 (S$243) a night, the rooms are reasonably priced and value for money.

Favourite restaurants

Located in a peaceful French colonial village, Home Kitchen (27 Le Quy Don, Hoi An; tel: +84-4-3939-2222; www.homerestaurant.vn/vietnamesefood/our-home. html) serves traditional Vietnamese food, such as salads and grilled seafood.

An average meal, including an appetiser, main course and a dessert, costs about US$20. Cooking classes are also available.

I also love Miss Ly Cafe 22 (22 Nguyen Hue Street), a very small cafe near the Central Market for casual dining. The food is delicious and inexpensive, about $3 to $10 for a dish.

Another fantastic restaurant is Morning Glory (106 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street; tel: +84-51-0224-1555; msvy-tastevietnam.com/morning-glory) in a lovely old colonial house on the main street.

It is well-known and attracts a lot of tourists and the food is consistently good. I recommend the banh xeo (crispy Vietnamese pancakes). Each dish costs less than $10. You need to book a table if there are several people in your group.

Favourite day trips

I recently visited Cam Thanh Village as part of Buffalo Tour agency's Essence of Hoi An tour (go to www.buffalotours.com/Travel-Style/Essence/Essence-of-Hoi-An-Highlights-and-Hidden-Charms-6992.html for details).

A bicycle ride takes you from busy Hoi An town through green paddy fields, lush gardens and coconut forests to a quiet countryside village where you listen to stories from the local community about Viet Cong guerilla soldiers in the Vietnam War; join in activities such as woven basket boat rowing and crab fishing; sample local food and experience the rural lifestyle.

A boat trip from Cam Thanh to Hoi An town in the afternoon is a wonderful way to watch the sunset. On arrival at the wharf, you are led to The Chef restaurant, (166 Tran Phu; tel: +84-9-1550- 6686) which has a roof terrace, for an evening cocktail.

If you are spending more than a few days in Hoi An, I suggest an overnight trip to Hue, a town two hours' drive north of Hoi An, depending on traffic. Hue was the former capital of the Nguyen Dynasty and it has a 19th-century Imperial City housing palaces and shrines.

Favourite shopping

Hoi An is full of talented artists. Visit the workshops and galleries, many of which are located in old shophouses and villas in the Old Town, and take home a piece of local artwork or ceramics, such as the beautiful blue and white ceramics Vietnam is well known for.

At LifeStart (77 Phan Chau Trinh; www.lifestartfoundation.org.au), you find locally made handicrafts and can also give back to the local community.

The Lifestart Foundation is a grassroots, not-for-profit charity that helps disadvantaged Vietnamese and their families to become self- sufficient. It also hosts painting and lantern-making workshops.

One of my favourite galleries is by French photographer Rehahn Croquevielle, who travels the world photographing people and sights.

His galleries in Hoi An (www.rehahnphotographer.com/asian-photo-gallery-and-bookstore) near the market display some of his work. Aside from photographs, there are books and artwork. You may meet the artist as well.

At night, the streets of Hoi An are lit by beautiful silk lanterns and there are plenty of stalls that sell them in all colours, shapes and sizes.

Favourite tailor

Toan Cau (109 Phan Chau Trinh Street) can replicate all my favourite pieces of clothing beautifully and at very reasonable prices, between US$50 and US$60. The quality is excellent.

Best breakfast

Locals and tourists dine at Madam Khanh Banh Mi (115 Tran Cao Van Street, Hoi An), a street-side cart serving toasted baguettes with a variety of local fillings for about $2. Madam Khanh is often there herself to serve customers.

Must try

White Rose dumplings are a speciality of Hoi An. The little dumplings are made from translucent white dough, which is filled with spiced minced shrimp or pork and bunched up to look like little white roses.

The recipe is kept secret by a family who supplies dumplings to restaurants. At 533 Hai Ba Trung Street, you can find Tran Tuan Ngai, a third-generation keeper of the secret recipe.

I also love Cao Lau, a noodle dish with a delicious gravy, pork (or tofu for vegetarians) and aromatic greens which is found only in Hoi An. You can get this anywhere from the street vendors and a bowl costs about $2.

Event to bookmark

Every month during the full moon, Hoi An's Old Town is filled with locals and tourists celebrating the Hoi An Lantern Festival.

The town is lit up with even more multi-coloured lanterns than usual, particularly along the river. Electricity is used sparingly in the old quarter and fluorescent lighting is banned.

You can send paper lanterns with a candle in them down the river or soak in the atmosphere, wandering the streets of this tiny town.

Best guides

I use Buffalo Tours to book my accommodation and day trips or tours. It has excellent local guides and I feel I am being shown around by an old friend.

I also like the book A Week In Hoi An by Bridget A.M. March. Along with beautiful illustrations that capture the spirit of Vietnam's prettiest town, this book is packed with interesting facts and stories.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline 'Hoi An's colonial charm'. Print Edition | Subscribe