Vietnam: Living the Hoi life

The ancient Vietnamese city of Hoi An is known for its epic street food and tailoring scene, discovers Erica Bush

“Is it your first time in Vietnam?” shouts my driver Tien as we whip along a rugged highway into Hoi An. Perched on the back of a Vespa with humid, incense-rich wind whooshing in my ears, I hadn’t expected conversation..

I crane my neck and lean in closer to Tien, whose orange T-shirt has the words ‘The ride of your life!’ emblazoned on the back. A Hoi An local, he can’t help but chatter away in spite of the noise, gleefully pointing out a pair of water buffalo bathing in the river and the pink-hued clouds that hang like candy floss as the sun dips lower in the sky.  I’m on a food tour with Vespa Adventures, a husband-and-wife-run company that provides escorted tours around Hoi An on restored vintage Vespas. Two wheels is, after all, the preferred mode of transport in this central Vietnamese city and I feel like a local as I weave my way through its notoriously chaotic traffic. At 5pm, the air is still thick with heat and I’m grateful when we turn down a shaded back street lined with coconut palms and corrugated houses, the promise of beachside cocktails ahead.

A handful of locals watch with curious eyes from the shade of their front porch, while others laze in creaking hammocks, sleepy from the heat. Our Vespa putters to a stop outside a leafy seaside shack called Shore Club and, minutes later, I’m sipping on a kumquat martini overlooking the popular An Bang Beach. Over the course of our four-hour tour, we wind through ramshackle pathways and paddy fields dotted with workers in conical hats in search of Hoi An’s best-kept culinary secrets. Unassuming restaurants and roadside cafes serve everything from famous white rose dumplings – perfected over 100 years from a secret family recipe – to grilled snakehead fish, glossy with chilli lime sauce. And it’s all washed down with ice-cold local beer. 

Four Seasons style

This is just one of the experiences our paradisiacal home for the week, Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, can orchestrate at the drop of a hat. Located halfway between Hoi An and Da Nang in the Quang Nam province, the acclaimed hotel has preferred partnerships with a select number of tour companies, with private excursions specially curated with the Four Seasons guest in mind. We mention we’d like to explore Hoi An’s historic Old Town and a walking tour is swiftly arranged – our group is ferried into the centre on one of four shuttles that run between the hotel and the city every day. The air-conditioned, Wi-Fi-powered journey takes a mere 15 minutes and our driver waits forour return with cold, watermelon-scented towels. 

Local guide Quy unpicks the rich history of Hoi An as we pass brightly-coloured manicured temples, market stalls laden with durian fruit and myriad lanterns criss-crossing above streets. The Old Town flourished as a trading port in the 15th century, we learn, and by the 18th century, was regarded by Chinese and Japanese merchants as one of the most important trade ports in all of southeast Asia. Trading moved to nearby Da Nang soon after Vietnam was colonised by the French in 1885, but Hoi An feels as though it has stood still in time. Declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, it’s exceptionally well preserved with French, Japanese and Chinese architecture still evident across the city. Colonial yellow houses line the river and iconic landmarks such as the intricately-carved Japanese Covered Bridge (thought to have been created in the 1590s by the Japanese community to link it with the Chinese quarters) remain sacred. 

With Hoi An’s reputation as the tailoring capital of Vietnam in mind, Quy makes a beeline for Yaly Couture. A mansion-sized fashion house with personal sales assistants, onsite ATMs and private waiting rooms – it’s regarded as the best tailors in town and the only one that comes with a Four Seasons stamp of approval. Reassured by the recommendation, we excitedly thumb all manner of fabrics and prints while smiling staff circle with endless books of designs. My tailor Kate channels my dream of a floral summer dress into a reality in a lightning-quick two days (“It’s very cute,” she enthuses encouragingly during my first fitting) and eventhrows in a pocket square for my boyfriend when it’s delivered to my hotel room later that week. 

Casting a wider net

But exploring Hoi An is just one part of the puzzle. The Nam Hai is actually connected to three Unesco World Heritage Sites – Hoi An, My Son Temple Sanctuary (an hours’ drive west) and Hue Imperial City (just under a three hours’ drive up the coast). The Unesco World Biosphere Reserve of Cham Islands is also only a 30-minute speed boat ride away, which we explore one morning with tour guide and keen conservationist Jack Tran. If I found my need for speed on my Vespa earlier that week, it’s certainly matched on the water as Jack zips over the dark, rolling waves of the East Vietnam Sea, deftly veering left and right to avoid rough areas of swell. We dock just off one of Cham’s eight islands and the abundance of nature is clear: exotic birds stridulate like crickets from their forested homes, while, underwater, fish of all colours and patterns flit between coral, seemingly unaware of its lack of life.

Tourism might have exploded in recent years, but Hoi An’s proximity to the ocean means fishing remains a key industry for local families. Large, billowing nets are strung out on wooden poles along the coast, while a fleet of boats – populated by families whose fishing skills have been passed down from father to son – head out en masse every evening on the Cua Dai Sea. A successful night will see fishermen returning with green crab and calamari, anchovies and shrimp, and – on good days – tuna and small shark.

Watching the boats come back in is a must-see spectacle, I’m told, as I bob, bleary-eyed, in another of Jack’s boats the following morning. At 5am, it’s perhaps the only time Vietnam in June is cool, and I clutch a mug of ginger tea as I wait for the sun to rise. We sit in perfect stillness as a fleet of boats appear on the horizon, a disc of burnt orange emerging from two peaks on Cham Islands. Rigged with large light bulbs and traditional bamboo baskets, the ships look almost pirate-like, but the weary locals on board send friendly waves. We follow them to the morning fish market, where the fishermen’s wives are waiting to take over the daily ritual in an impressive show of team effort. They clean, sort and sell the fish, haggling in shrill voices and categorising the product into coloured containers with remarkable speed, while the men play cards over a hard-earned beer. 

Back on the boat, breakfast is served: fresh sea bass caught just hours before, grilled lightly over hot coals and drizzled with a healthy spritz of lemon juice. I take a bite. It was my first time in Vietnam, though hopefully not my last.

Book it: Qatar Airways offers up to four connections per week from Heathrow and Gatwick to Da Nang. Economy‑class tickets start from £671. Business‑class tickets start from £3,919.

qatarairways.com

Four Seasons the Nam Hai

An abundance of tropical greenery and a long white-sand strip of private beach set the stage for this glorious beachside bolthole. Its 100 villas span 11 categories and are hidden among lush gardens and fragrant frangipani trees. A three-bedroom Ocean-View Villa comes with a shared lounge, private infinity pool and the friendliest butler service. Oriental-style bedrooms feature stylish dark wood and outdoor rain showers, marble baths and furnished terraces. At the centre of the resort, three infinity pools cascade down various levels of landscaped gardens, fringed by coconut palms.

Two restaurants – Cafe Nam Hai and La Sen – provide Vietnamese and international fare. Alternatively, clients can try making their own at the on-site Cooking Academy. Nearby Hoi An might entice you out of resort, but there’s also plenty of reasons to stay: take to the ocean to play on one of the property’s many water toys; try all variants of yoga in the new yoga pavilion; or head next door to The Nam Hai’s crown jewel: eight floating treatment rooms perched over a carp and lotus-filled pond that make up what is consistently voted as one of Four Seasons’ best spas.

Book it: A three-bedroom Ocean-View Pool Villa starts from $2,705 per night excluding tax and service charge. fourseasons.com/hoian

What's cooking

Any lover of Asian food will recognise the fresh, fragrant flavours of Vietnamese cooking. No trip to Hoi An would be complete without sampling these delicious delicacies.

Cao Lau

Hoi An’s signature dish includes barbecued pork, thick rice noodles, greens, herbs and broth. The rice noodles are made from rice soaked in lye water, giving them their unique, chewy texture. 

White Rose dumplings

A secret, 100-year-old recipe held by a third-generation family of Chinese settlers, these white rose-shaped dumplings can only be found in Hoi An. Visit the restaurant at 533 Hai Ba Trung Street, where the family makes 6,000 dumplings a day. 

Com ga

Chicken and rice cooked in the same water form the staple ingredients of this simple, savoury dish. Flavour with bean sprouts, soy, chilli and Vietnamese basil for tastiest results.

Banh xeo

These rice flour pancakes are coloured yellow with turmeric and peppered with bean sprouts and pieces of pork and shrimp. Diners roll them up in rice paper, adding lettuce, sweet kimchi and a good dunking of peanut sauce.  

Pho

This deliciously savoury broth is Vietnam’s best-known dish. A clear pork or chicken based-broth is simmered for hours, before adding rice noodles, herbs and thinly-cut meat. 

Banh Mi

A marked remnant of French colonialism, you’ll find stalls selling these Vietnamese sandwiches on every corner. A baguette is split lengthways and filled with pork, coriander, cucumber, pickled carrots and spicy chilli sauce.

Erica Bush

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