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This is how full immersion in Hoi An is done with Contiki

Hoi An, Vietnam

When you think of Vietnam, what do you picture? What can you see? What can you taste? What can you smell? What are you doing?

I bet I can answer all of those for you, and I can fulfil all your Vietnam wants and needs with just one city: Hoi An. Vietnam has already captured the hearts of many with delicious coffees, noodle soups, and beautiful beaches.

There’s so much to do in Vietnam and Hoi An, and you’ll get to experience it all on Contiki’s Vietnam Highlights and Vietnam Experience. Picture this, you and your best friend have just booked the trip and it’s day 1, time for the kickstart meeting…

What is a Kickstart Meeting?

Kickstarts are done the first night or morning of the trip. It gives me, your Trip Manager, an opportunity to introduce myself, run through the itinerary, outline the included experiences, and most importantly the group gets to meet each other.

What does the start of the trip look like?

You’re in the Kickstart Meeting, I’ve asked you all to introduce yourselves and to tell the group ‘what you’re most looking forward to on the trip?’. You freeze and reactively say ‘Hoi An’ because all you can think about are the lantern boats and the beautiful beaches you’ve seen in photos.

Little do you know – there is so much more to this beautiful city. Every day on trip the Trip Manager will discuss the itinerary of the day, drop lots of fun facts, and fill in the blanks for any questions you might have. The local guide will lead the group through all the major sites, and give lots of talks aboard the coach.

Leading up to this wonderful part of the trip, I can’t stop talking about every aspect of Hoi An. It’s a city that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999, and the atmosphere, the food, and ongoing melting pot of culture that fills the streets is what makes Hoi-An a traveller’s favourite destination.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Image source:Contiki

What cultural aspects do you get to experience with Contiki?

Travel is all about activating your senses. Contiki trips will include Free Time Add-Ons and included experiences which will send your senses into overdrive. Vietnam is just the place for it: the constant beep beeps of the motorbikes and traffic jams, the smell of BBQ pork being cooked roadside, the lush green rice paddies and stunning islands of Halong Bay…

We’re about to head out for our bicycle ride throughout Hoi An. I quickly let you know what’s going on for the tour and what to bring. But, first thing’s first – Banh Mi: one of the most delicious and reputable sandwiches in the whole country – from one of the famous local vendors in town is in the lobby waiting for us. It’s time to fill our bellies before the bicycle ride.

My goal is to fully immerse you into Vietnam and to really activate your senses. Let’s see if we can tick them all off: sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing. You’ve got your conical hat on, your bicycle is ready, it’s time for our cultural sightseeing tour. The plus side of travelling with Contiki is that we figure out all the best places to see, all the most memorable things to do, and all the hidden secrets to share. So, let’s take a ride…

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Sight

The sun is shining, so we’ve taken the long route into town, we cycle past the rice paddies, see buffalo wading through the mud – there are stalks on their backs, and we can see farmers in the fields.

Every part of this city captures your attention; the French balconies, with the cobbled streets that wind alongside the canals, the wooden houses with cute storefronts that are decorated with vines, lanterns and souvenirs. You just want to stop and take photos everywhere.

We point your attention across the street to see some local women beautifully dressed in traditional Ao Dai – bright coloured dresses, with delicate embroidery ornamenting them.

Smell

From here we head into the Ancient part of the city, a strategically planned route devised by the local guide and I to make sure the group can see all the hidden treasures of the city. We weave our way through the local market – Cho Dem Bach Dang. A strange smell hits your nostrils, it’s fresh seafood, cooked squid and raw meats that line the streets of the local market. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever smelt before.

Now that we’ve got your attention with the pungent smell, we take a quick stop so that the local guide and I can take this opportunity to give the group some information and fill in the blanks surrounding the beautiful Hoi-An.

Time for a bit of history.

Hoi-An is located on the coast of Central Vietnam, in Quang Nam Province. It sits on the north bank of the Thu Bon River, and faces the East Sea (formally known as the South China Sea). A location like this makes for a perfect port city – and Hoi An served as a trade city for more than 2000 years. Growing from small local traders back in the 2nd Century, to developing a powerful and international trade throughout the 16th century,

Hoi-An became well known as the spice trading centre for the Hindu Cham Kingdom. It was also where the merchants and soldiers settled from China as part of the Ming Dynasty and it hosted a number of trades between the Arabs, Europeans, and Asians. This trade community brought in a lot of influence; here is where the melting pot begun. A mixture of Vietnamese, Cham, Japanese, Chinese, and Europeans. It has influenced the whole city from the ground up – architecture, sites, culture, food, temples, and ancient kingdoms.

Melting pot of cultural influences.

We take a quick photo stop at Hoi Quan Phuoc Kien – a stunning Cantonese Assembly Hall, then cycle along the crowded streets ducking around tourists in cyclos, and make our way to Chua Cau – the Japanese Bridge – built between the 16th and 17th Century. Here we take a refreshment break, and photograph the canals of this picturesque town which summarizes Hoi An in a singular shot.

It highlights the beautiful townscapes which incorporates Chinese, Vietnamese, French and Japanese architecture influences. We’re back on our bikes and off to the Ancient House Tan Ky – it was constructed in 1741, passed down through more than 7 generations, and has survived the tragic floods of Hoi An.

Here the local guide and house Historian tell us more about this style of housing in Vietnam. We’re shown the detailed works that form the inner structure of the house, wood carvings with mother of pearl inlay. There are examples of furniture on display in the house for us to see, and we compare to the comfort of our own homes.

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We finish off this part of the tour with a quick demonstration of the Confucius cup. Confucianism is an ancient Chinese belief system which focuses on the importance of personal ethics and morality. Once the demonstration is done, it’s time for one of our travellers to give the cup a try. The whole idea behind it is not to be too greedy and overfill your cup…

There’s one last stop on our agenda for the day, we’re off to the tailors. Hoi Ani is famous for tailor made clothing and we bring you to the best. Yaly Couture supports their employees with fair working conditions, maximum working hours, air conditioned rooms, and the staff were even supported throughout Covid. Yaly’s also features in an episode of Top Gear. Lauren, who’s seen in the episode, still manages the shop in the centre of town.

This is the last stop on the cultural sightseeing tour for the group, once everyone has been revived by the air conditioning, it’s time to get back to the bicycles and explore the city and it’s surrounds before regrouping in the evening for the best cooking class.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Image source:Contiki

Taste

The evening’s cooking class will fill your belly, so I tell my travellers to just have a little snack during the afternoon. Whilst out exploring the city there are so many cute cafes and restaurants where you can grab something light to eat, and a nice cold drink. My cheat sheet includes:

The evening’s cooking class includes my favourite local dish Cao Lau – thick noodles which are traditionally served with pork (or a tofu substitute), lots of fresh greens and sprouts, finished off with a garlic and chilli sauce that uses a secret spice mix.

If you sign up to the cooking class, you will create 4 famous local dishes, but in the end will get to taste 5. How does that work? Join the trip and you will get to find out.

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Explore

Travellers on trip have a number of interests, they arrive with a full bucket list, or no expectations at all. My job as a Trip Manager is to fulfil their wants and needs, and showcase the hidden treasures found locally.

Day 2 in Hoi An, we head off the the Marble Mountains in the morning, just a short 30min drive from Hoi An. It’s an active morning for us with a hike around the mountain, and through the caves. This is an iconic tourist destination in this area as it plays an integral role in the community as a religious site. The caves were used throughout history by the Viet Cong during the Civil War, and the American War.

The local guide and I use will use this time to help you plan out your free time adventures. Relaxing by the pool, having an afternoon at the spa, or wandering around the streets for all the local markets, and vendors is popular among our groups. But if you’re looking for more, we have lots of options to suggest.

1. Coconut forest

One of my favourites and a must do for all travellers is to take the bus to the Coconut Forest, and ride in one of the famous basket boats. The basket boats have now become a popular tourist attraction, but originally, they were used by the locals here in Central Vietnam to avoid paying the water taxes that were introduced by the French during their rule.

The whole excursion takes around 90minutes, paddling in the basket boats through coconut and palm trees, down hidden canals, and into the lake where you can see local fishing techniques demonstrated by locals. You can even give it a try too…

2. Balewell

After that, I suggest you head back into the city and grab Balewell for lunch: delicious BBQ pork with fresh greens, wrapped in rice paper and dipped into a yummy sauce. It’s a local delicacy you must try.

3. Temple trekking

If you’re in Vietnam for more cultural experiences, then I strongly recommend taking the adventure out to My Son temples. These temples were built as early as the 4th Century and are now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Between the 4th-13th Centuries, a unique culture developed in this region, which had ties to the spiritual origins of Indian Hinduism. This region was known as the Champa Kingdom, a religious and political capital, and the temples are located in a ring of mountains, symbolizing the greatness and purity of the Hindu Gods, venerated by the Cham people.

4. Photo ops

Other travellers on trip might be here to hit all the best Instagram locations, so I have devised a list of some of the best picturesque cafes with stunning views around the city. Some you can walk to, and others are a short bicycle ride just outside the main quarters.

Inside the city you can find beautiful alleyways and walls to photograph everywhere. A must see is the Prestige Heritage Art Gallery which is a short walk from the local market. Here you can see a number of local and international artists with their works on display.

5. Beach bums

If our jam packed itinerary isn’t enough for you, then we have even more day trips, and half day trips to recommend. Do you have your scuba diving certification? Then why not explore the underwater world of the islands just off the coast of Vietnam, or head out to the beach clubs along An Bang Beach and enjoy some afternoon refreshments.

6. Golden Hands Bridge

Or head out to the misty mountains of Da Nang and spend the afternoon walking around Ba Na Hills to get that iconic photo of the Golden Hands Bridge. The Golden Hands Bridge is approx. 150m long, 1400m above sea level and was made to symbolize the mysteries of nature as God is carrying the gift from the ground.

7. Night at the Circus

A soft and cultural experience to end the evening, is to check out the Bamboo Circus which is showcased in the Lune Centre of An Hoi island. There are different performances which tell different historical and cultural stories. The performances have been compared to Cirque du Soleil – there’s an indescribable energy coming off the performers. They use simplistic bamboo props combined with their gymnastic skills to tell such beautiful stories.

Now, back to your trip.

After the tailors you plan on café hopping looking for the best coconut and salt coffees, you go souvenir shopping on the way to the spa, enjoying a hot stone massage, and you make it back to the hotel in time for sunset.

Nothing beats a rooftop sunset spent sipping on a locally crafted beer before the cooking class. After that, it’s time to blast the day song in one of the local bars and enjoy a night out with the group.

The next day, you’ve got to sweat out the night before, and enjoy the views from Marble Mountains. It’s time for lunch, and it’s a toss up between The Noodle House, and Balewell – two of the best local spots to eat in town. Next on the Hoi An hitlist is the Basket Boats in the coconut forest, followed by more shopping, and ending the night at the Lune Centre for the bamboo show. Dinner time, it’s time for something light and easy, a taste test through the night markets, and a ride on one of the lantern boats.

Hoi An, Vietnam

Image source:Contiki

Departure day from Hoi An arrives, and I pass down the bus checking in with each of the travellers. You stop me in my tracks and say

‘Wow Rhi, Hoi An is not what I expected! I thought it was just pretty lights, and lanterns, but you made sure to show us that it’s so much more and we’re already planning our next trip back so we can spend more time here.’

I ask about what you did during the two days, and you both tell me all about it. All the things you saw, all the foods you tasted, the souvenirs you touched, the funky smells, the yummy smells and show me some of your favourite photos. A sensory overload, and easily your favourite city on trip.  

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When should you avoid travelling to Hoi An?

Hoi An is beautiful year round and will always be full of tourists. However, with a tropical climate, it’s hot all the time – so keep this in mind when travelling through Central Vietnam. Temperatures can reach up to 40 degrees Celsius during the Summer.

When booking a trip to Vietnam, I’d suggest avoiding the torrential down pours of the rainy season. This falls between September-November. If you travel during this time, you’ll often find yourself in the middle of a flash flood when the rivers and canals overflow.

I’d also avoid TET – the Vietnamese Lunar New Year which falls around February. During this time, the city closes down, families return to the countryside to exchange gifts, enjoy meals together, and pray to their ancestors. The hustle and bustle of the melting pot Hoi An simmers down and only a select few businesses will be open.

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