Sisters at Hoi An, Vietnam

My friends who have made repeat visits to Hoi An, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site in Vietnam, cannot stop talking about how much I will enjoy this place. 

Traditional Vietnamese lanterns inside
an ancient family home in Hoi An
They gave me helpful tips and food recommendations, complete with names and addresses to their favourite restaurants and places of interest, which I carefully kept for reference.  So when our middle sister, Pearly planned a trip back from the UK, eldest sister, we decided to have a sisters’ trip to an Asian destination.  And I did not hesitate to suggest Hoi An.

This destination is high on my must-visit list of destinations because it is a heritage town that we can explore and enjoy the sites on foot.  With this in mind, we selected a suitable homestay within walking distance of the ancient town, made flight and accommodation bookings and quickly shared the info with Pearly so that she could apply for her visa into Vietnam.

While my sisters and I are good at map-reading, navigating and planning itineraries on our trips together, those were self-drive adventures in the UK, New Zealand and Australia.  For Hoi An, we agreed to start with a guided tour for a feel of the distance between the ancient town and our homestay, The Sun, so that we can explore further on our own in the following days there.

Guided Tour

My sisters, Ruby, Pearly and I climbing up the
numerous steps on Marble Mountain
Brochures picked up from the airport and our homestay reception gives us an idea of popular tours and it didn’t take long for us to decide on a half-day tour to the Marble Mountains followed by a visit to the ancient town, a river cruise and dinner.  

The helpful receptionist made the reservations for an English-speaking guide on our behalf and tells us to be ready at the appointed time.  With feet shod in walking shoes, we are waiting at the reception when a young man arrives promptly and introduced himself as our tour guide, Mr Turtle.

The ancient town of Hoi An is designated only
for walking and cycling
We are amused but I guess the Vietnamese version of his name must mean something auspicious.  Too soon we discover that it’s certainly a catchy name for this keen and energetic guide who kept us going in our climb up the 158 steps and down 123 steps on the 106-meter high Marble Mountain.  Roughly hewn steps carved out of rocky limestone and marble without any hand rails can be a challenging climb but Turtle patiently guided us along.  And each time he wants to give us a brief on a particular cave, pagoda or sculpture, he will summon us together by calling, “Team Turtle!” and we will leave the touristy throng to listen to him.

The ancient Japanese Bridge is a must-visit site!
Instead of giving us the usual spiel with information on the sites, Turtle prefers to ask questions for us to participate interactively with him.  Of course their ancient folklore may be ambiguous but whenever I reply accurately to his quizzing, he will give me a “high five” slap on my raised palm and commend me as “a very good student!”

To enter Hoi An ancient town which is designated for only walking and cycling, Turtle bought our entrance tickets that also entitles us to five ticketed heritage sites like ancient houses and museums here.  I cannot help admiring the architecture of the shops and houses that date back to the 16th and 17th centuries which has distinctly Chinese, Japanese, Dutch and Indian influences, established by traders who settled in this trading post.  

Freshly baked Banh Mi or French loaves
ready to be filled with savoury meats
The Chinese communal houses and assembly halls for the various clans established in their adopted country, strikes a familiar chord because the early Chinese immigrants did the same when they settled in then Malaya.  Guards posted at the entrances of the covered Japanese Bridge in the former Japanese quarter, help to control tourists at this must-visit site in Hoi An.

By late afternoon, the smell of freshly fried fritters from hawker stalls is so tempting that we asked Turtle to buy us some from his favourite stall.  He obliged and we happily munched them during the relaxing 30-minute cruise on the Thu Bon River.  We pass the market en route to our dinner destination and we have Turtle’s help to bargain and buy a comb of bananas.  A crowd is already queuing for their orders for Banh Mi or French loaves and savouring a variety of delicious meat-filled baguettes divided among my sisters, is a fitting end to an eventful and exciting tour with Turtle.

Own Walkabouts

Pearly found these freshly fried snacks simply irresistible!
A sketch map that the homestay created helps to give us an idea of our location in relation to the ancient town and by now, we are familiar with landmarks in each direction, particularly the restaurants that we visited more than once.  

As we walk along, we stop at shops to check out the souvenirs for an idea of the prices because the merchandise appears to be quite similar everywhere.  Most of the traders are tourist oriented and friendly and I enjoy making my choices but I just refuse to buy anything from shops where they are too pushy.

Spotted this mobile vendor for brushes, brooms and dusters!
The heat increases quite rapidly in the day and to avoid the hottest hours, our strategy is to linger over lunch and coffee and emerge a little later when the heat is not so scorching.  Following the given name and address, we find the Morning Glory, a charming restaurant in the ancient town named after water convolvulus or kangkong vegetables that serves a menu of quality street food.  

Besides a platter of stir-fried morning glory, we also savoured Banh Xeo or crispy pancake, Hoi An Pho or beef noodles and Goi Tai Heo, a pig ear and cabbage salad.

The building directly opposite houses, Reaching Out, a gift shop and workshop run by artisans with disabilities that produces a range of exquisite handicrafts.  It has an interesting concept where abled people create products like ceramics for the artisans in Reaching Out to add white brass borders and decorations to enhance the finishing of such vessels.

Women selling ready-to-eat, peeled and
shredded fresh greens in the market
Another noteworthy handicraft place is Sova Art Hand Embroidery where skilled workers hand-embroidery amazingly realistic pictures from different shades of threads.  We pause to watch the sewing girls meticulously matching the threads to create beautiful works of art in embroidery.  The gallery of framed, painstakingly created artworks, is certainly something to be admired!

The morning sights and sounds of Central Market, Hoi An’s wet market, is an eye-opener as we mingle with the locals to see how traders still sell live poultry by whole birds and eggs are distributed, piled high inside a huge basket and pushed on a roughly made hand pallet.  While most stalls look like those in our farmer’s market, many traders squat by the road with their goods displayed on ground sheets.  As the Vietnamese diet includes lots of salads, it’s interesting to see women selling ready-to-eat, peeled and shredded fresh greens.

Surprising Perks

Our flight from Kuala Lumpur to Danang in Vietnam was rather full and when we disembarked, we saw a group of Indonesian youths wearing uniform dark green T-shirts.  While waiting in the queue at Immigration, I read the small print on their T-shirts that hinted they are members of a school music group.  

We saw the SMK IJ Convent choir performing in Hoi An!
On our scenic drive into Hoi An, I see large banners and signboards announcing the dates for the 4th Vietnam International Choir Competition and told my sisters that my guess is the youths must be here to participate in this event.  Then I wondered if the choir from our alma mater, the Johor Baru HIJ Convent, could also be participating in this competition held in Hoi An!

It was almost 24 hours later when I received a reply from the teacher who confirmed that the school choir was indeed in Hoi An for the competition and scheduled to perform after 2pm on Thursday!  It’s so uncanny that I should be in the same town in Vietnam with our JB Convent choir!

Guests arriving at the bridegroom's home in a village
about an hour and a half's drive away from Hoi An
Now one of the perks of a homestay experience is the privilege to join in the homestay family’s activities.  On arrival, we were served tea in the lobby while waiting for our room to be ready and we chatted with To Phuong, the receptionist who is the family’s daughter.  Her mother, Hoi, who is also the housekeeper, joined us later and as we chatted, we discovered that To Phuong was getting married on Thursday.  

My sisters and I were stunned when Hoi spontaneously invited us to the wedding and insisted that we join them as part of the bride’s family in the bridal party who will go to the groom’s hometown for the wedding banquet!

I will share our special experience in a Vietnamese wedding in a separate story.  That day, my sisters and I were glad that the bridal party was ferried back to Hoi An before 2pm and the driver dropped us off at the resort hotel where the choir competition was being held.  And we arrived just on time for the JB Convent choir’s performance.  Who would have thought that we should have the privilege to witness the choir’s performance in Hoi An where we were on holiday?  We couldn’t have planned it better!

Fast Facts

Visit website, for travel packages with Mr Turtle of Simply Vietnam Travel.  Our triple-share room with The Sun Homestay includes daily set breakfasts for three.  Visit website:

A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 30 July 2015

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