Hoi An is on many a ‘must-see’ list in Vietnam, but shortly after driving into the city, it was clear that this was tourist-central. Hoi An is what you think Vietnam looks like before actually visiting there. Don’t get us wrong, it’s very pretty – there’s a reason we have taken to calling it ‘Hoi-Anstagram’. The iconic yellow walls and Chinese lanterns make for some pretty photo shoot backdrops, but a few hours of wandering around the Ancient Town, and we were worried that we weren’t going to like it here very much.
Oh, how wrong we were.
No, it wasn’t the ‘real leather’ shops where every salesperson claims their family has been making these products for hundreds of years. And it wasn’t the salespeople on bikes asking the same three questions: Where are you from? When did you come to my hometown? Will you come to my family’s tailoring shop?
But it was a few more off-the-beaten-path, authentic experiences that made our days in Hoi An some of the best of our trip so far. Here’s what made it so memorable:
Black Sesame Soup Demonstration
We’d seen the location for this displayed on a tourist map of Hoi An’s Old City and as big foodies, thought we’d give it a try. We walked a couple blocks away from the hustle and bustle of the town to a small, empty house. After a few moments of wondering if this was the right place, a small man appeared from the inner rooms and gestured us to come in. He showed us the ingredients used to make black sesame soup, a Hoi An delicacy, and told us the story of his father and mother, still alive at ages 104 and 97 respectively, who had been practicing the craft for the last eight decades. He grinned with pride when showing us pictures of his parents and even offered us some samples of the sweet, pudding-like soup. It was a very touching, intimate experience – until the Vietnamese news camera crew showed up. Read all about that here. But the commotion did coax the man’s mother, a tiny woman, out of the back room to hover in the doorway and watch the goings on. And helping with some publicity for the people was the least we could do.
Reaching Out Teahouse
We’d read about this teahouse online so it isn’t exactly a secret, and we definitely weren’t the only ones there, but it was an amazing experience all the same. Reaching Out is an organization that was started in 2000 to provide work opportunities to people who are differently abled. In Hoi An, they are staffed entirely by people who are hard of hearing or Deaf. Café patrons are encouraged to stay silent or whisper and ordering is done by writing on paper or touching blocks with words on them. We spent some time in the small courtyard, enjoying the silence and the local coffee taster set, complete with handmade cookies. It was lovely to spend some time away from the busyness of the outside street in such an inclusive and joyful space.
Precious Heritage Project
This museum-meets-photo gallery features a collection of images by French photographer, Réhahn, though he now calls Hoi An his home. Over the last nine years, he has been photographing each of Vietnam’s 54 hill tribes, the country’s indigenous groups. You can see all of them displayed in this free museum, along with a brief history of the tribe and one of the group’s traditional costumes. The photos themselves are moving, but the opportunity to learn about the diverse cultures and traditions in Vietnam is all the more worthwhile.
So there you have it! Whether you’re looking for the chance to chat with a local, enjoy a quiet moment, or learn more about Vietnam’s rich culture, you can do it all in Hoi An… while still having enough time to get those sought-after ‘grams.
Have you visited Hoi An? What other non-touristy, worthwhile experiences did you have? Let us know in the comments below!
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