The Heart of Vietnam
It was once the seat chosen by kings, emperors and merchant empires. Today, Vietnam’s central coast – home to exceptional beaches and gateway to three UNESCO sites – is in the midst of an inspired revival.
I love wandering Hoi An’s ancient cobbled streets, particularly during the full moon, when strings of lanterns bring the façades of ochre-walled 18th- and 19th-century European, Vietnamese, Chinese and Japanese shophouses alive with light and colour.
Established in the 15th century, this tiny town on Vietnam’s central coast was a busy port until the mouth of the Thu Bon River silted up in the 19th century and all trade moved to Da Nang, 30 kilometres (18 miles) north.
As a result, walking the pedestrianized streets in Hoi An, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, feels like stepping back in time. Fishing boats bobbing on the canals blur the reflections of tradespeople hurrying home from their woodcarving, tailoring and painting shops for dinner. From cosy bars and restaurants set within timber-frame structures, ambient lamplight and delicious smells attract hungry patrons like moths to a flame.
Discover Hoi An: An awakening in the central coast
I always alight first at Vy’s Market – from the same proprietor as the excellent Mermaid and Cargo Club restaurants – and watch the cooks work elbow to elbow, preparing local street food specialties such as banh bao vac, or “white rose” dumplings (steamed, petal-shaped dumplings of rice flour with a filling of spiced pork or shrimp).
For more contemporary fare, I’ll swing by Chef Tran Duc’s Asian fusion eatery Mango Rooms, one of Hoi An’s longest-running and best-known spots, and order spicy Super Fly Shrimp and gingery red snapper. I’ll also make a point of visiting the chef’s newer outlets: Mango Mango, on the opposite bank of the Thu Bon River, and traditional homestyle eatery Mai Fish.
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I’m not alone in my love for this town and the central coast area that surrounds it. While making Vietnam my home over the past decade, I’ve seen a flurry of energy and investment in this geographic and cultural heartland of the country. The fact that Hoi An’s modern-day entrepreneurs can open one shop or eatery after another is evidence of the overall upward trajectory of this region. Nearby Da Nang, now Vietnam’s third-largest urban area, is the poster city for the country’s growth.
Da Nang’s pro-development government has put in place a well-planned infrastructure that includes an expanded and still-expanding airport, currently receiving direct flights weekly from Korea, Japan, Bangkok, Singapore and Hong Kong. Property moguls are touting Da Nang and its surrounds as the next Phuket or Bali; hospitality consultancy firm Horwath HTL has dubbed the region the “next great beach destination in Asia.”
The beaches that stretch from Da Nang to Hoi An are among the world’s most beautiful. Some are justifiably quite popular, but I can always find a quiet spot somewhere along the 900-metre (half-mile) My Khe beach. When I want company, I visit one of the beachfront grill shacks or backpacker bars on lively An Bang or Cua Dai, both easily accessible from Hoi An’s downtown by bicycle or xe om (motorbike taxi).
Yet it’s not throngs of visitors or new development but a wealth of natural and cultural treasures that characterizes the central coast. While these beaches are picture-postcard perfect, what gives this region an edge over other gorgeous Southeast Asian destinations is its position as a gateway to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Where the past meets the future
Back in Hoi An, more historical and cultural riches await in the UNESCO-listed Old Town. Its museums, historic family homes, temples and venues for traditional performances are accessible via books of entrance tickets.
Marking one edge of Old Town, the iconic covered Japanese Bridge, constructed by Japanese merchants at the end of the 16th century to connect their quarter with the Chinese neighbourhood on the other side of the river, is the only known bridge attached to a Buddhist pagoda.
Two-storey family home Tan Ky House incorporates Chinese and Japanese architectural styles – walls inlaid with mother-of-pearl, wooden frames carved with dragons, crossed weapons, and elaborate fruits and leaves.
Once I’ve had my fill of official monuments, I’ll continue touring the town. Many traditional shophouses have been reinvigorated as intriguing galleries, chic boutiques, and stylish places to drink and dine.
If I don’t buy something tailored, I usually fall in love with a contemporary dress or top in cotton or silk at Oche boutique or O-Collective. For a mid-shopping pick-me-up, I’ll pop into one of the town’s ever-growing complement of coffee shops or cocktail spots.
Every time I’m in Hoi An, I feel a deeper appreciation for the region’s appeal through the centuries, attracting kings, emperors, colonial administrators and prosperous merchants – and now, a new generation of globetrotters in search of the heart of Vietnam.
Welcome to Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, Hoi An
Architect Reda Amalou envisioned each room at Four Seasons Resort The Nam Hai, Hoi An, Vietnam, as an exquisite modern interpretation of the traditional Vietnamese nha ruong, or “house of panels,” bringing together classic elements of Vietnamese design with modern touches in keeping with the principles of phong thuy (Vietnamese feng shui).
Open-plan, colonnaded interiors support roofs of handcrafted terracotta tiles. A central platform inspired by the Vietnamese phan – a multipurpose stage where the family greets visitors, eats meals and sleeps – makes room for a desk, a sunken bath, a flat-screen TV and a soft king-size bed. The horseshoe arrangement of villas gives every guest an ocean view.
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Equally stunning is the sight of three central pools at different levels, framed by swaying palms with the open ocean beyond.
Gain new understanding of the subtleties and nuances of Vietnamese cuisine at the on-site Nam Hai Cooking Academy, led by Chef Tran Van Sen. The Academy offers single-day and week-long courses, and leads guests on a different culinary adventure each day, from visiting local markets to preparing imperial specialties such as Hue lemongrass skewers and stuffed banh khoai pancakes. Between beach visits and cooking classes, recharge at The Heart of the Earth Spa, with treatments informed by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s Zen teachings.