Hoi An

Of all the places we visited in Vietnam, it’s probably safe to say Hoi An was my favorite. Remember when I said that Luang Prabang was surprisingly my favorite part of our last SE Asia trip? Well in the same way, Hoi An is the city that wasn’t as famous as Hanoi or Saigon and that I knew the least about (like Luang Prabang), yet its small village, relaxing atmosphere made it the best part of the trip.

Where To Stay

La Residencia
35 Đào Duy Từ, Cẩm Phô
Tp. Hội An, Quảng Nam

I really liked this hotel. The location is perfect because it’s right outside of Old Town on the west side, so it’s closest to all the street food and the Night Market. The room we had was large and comfortable enough for three people, had a balcony, and the hotel provides a really good breakfast buffet. The employees were also very friendly and helpful and the price, unsurprisingly, was great ($53/night). It’s a bit of a walk to get into town, but it’s not overly exerting. And it’s much quieter at night because it’s not in the center of everything.

What To Do

The best way to take in Hoi An is to just walk around and get lost with all the other backpackers. Hoi An isn’t as remote as Luang Prabang, which makes it a bit more manageable in terms of getting around (there are no rickety old bridges that you have to cross over and over again to get into town). But it’s also not as touristy as Siem Reap, so it’s not overwhelmingly in your face like that city.

In order to see most of the historical sights within Old Town like the Japanese Covered Bridge and the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation you need to buy a 120 dong ticket. You’re forced to purchase one at ticket booths on the outskirts of Old Town. Do not lose the ticket because they will check to see if you have one every time you walk in and out of Old Town.

Hoi An’s architecture was able to survive a lot of the 20th century wars, so strolling through town is like walking through a time capsule. In the evening, the Night Market bustles with pedestrians under the hundreds of colorful lanterns and, like the market in Luang Prabang, is filled with vendors where you can get souvenirs.

Get suited up.  They may as well call Hoi An “Tailor Town” because there are dozens of tailoring shops that line the streets of this small town. Some are obviously better than others, but in general I think you’ll find a deal on clothes no matter where you go. My buddy and I ultimately ended up getting suits made at Kimmy Tailor (which is a top rated store in both Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor). For $420 I bought 2 tailored suits and a tie. The process took three trips over the course of our stay there, but they can do it in fewer if you’re pressed for time (they just won’t be able to make small adjustments).

As of this writing, the suits have held together well and are still top notch. A competing store that we considered, Bebe Tailor, offered 2 suits for $385, and while that price is lower, Kimmy’s employees seemed a bit more on top of their work and the material was a little bit better. But if you’re a woman, Bebe does offer far more women’s options (my sister ended up getting a tailored suit from Bebe for $150).

Eat all the cheap food.  Specifically, eat Cao Lau. This is a dish you’re only going to find in Hoi An, and it was probably one of my favorite meals of the trip. The noodle dish is the perfect mix of pasta-y, salty, veggie, meaty, crunchy deliciousness with just the right amount of broth–all for $1. Also, go to Banh Mi Phuong and get a banh mi sandwich. Look for the place with a picture of Anthony Bourdain proudly displayed. Order the #9 (Pork, Ham, and Pate) for one of the best sandwiches you’ll get for 75 cents. If you go at lunch, expect a line.

Take a ride in a Basket Boat. In all honesty, we kind of ran into this activity by accident on our hike out of Hoi An to find Pho Dua Coconut City. On our way, we saw the Le Ha Basket Boat outfit and decided on a whim to give a go. For 100K dong, you can paddle your way through the coconut fields in a bamboo fishing basket. It makes for a fun, really unique experience. Our guide also provided us with Asian conical hats which made for some pretty ridiculously hilarious pictures. Note: I couldn’t find a website for the company; it was a pretty local outfit. At the end, our boat guide actually guided us back to her own house along the river where we disembarked.

Light a candle and put the lantern into the Thu Bồn River. Hoi An is the most tranquil at night, and the hundreds of candles floating down the river are a huge part of giving it that serene evening atmosphere. There are several meanings behind the floating candles, but I think it’s best to take the beauty of the tradition and interpret it however you’d like that’s personal to you.

Take a Jeep tour.  More to come in the next post.

Places to eat in Florence

First of all, I’m going to put this out there and say there probably isn’t a bad place to eat in Florence.  My best guess is even the worst place to dine in Florence is probably still better than going to Olive Garden, Macaroni Grill or Carrabba’s.  So that being said, here’s a quick list of some good spots to check out:

All’Antico Vinaio da Tommaso/Osteria all’ Antico Vinaio
Via De’Neri 65/74 Firenze 50122

This suggestion came from several different friends, and it’s hard to argue with them that this place has the best cheap eats in the city (or actually in the world in general).   Split into two locations, there’s a sit down restaurant and a take-out storefront across the street from one another.  My buddy and I opted for the take-out, which around lunch time had a line that was about a 10-15 minute wait.  It was worth it despite having to avoid all the pigeons hanging out above shitting on everyone.  For 5 euros, you can get an incredibly good sandwich.  The great ciabatta bread, delicious meats, and really fresh tasting vegetables and cheese practically had my eyes popping out of my head on the first bite.  You can order the sandwich however you want, but for the sake of not being that annoying customer, I opted for one of the Top 5 sandwiches they have on the chalkboard.  Stop in here for lunch.

Gusta Pizza
Via Maggio, 46R, 50125 Firenze

Obviously you have to stop into a place for pizza when in Italy, and again, you probably can’t go wrong with most places.  We came here at the suggestion of a friend (this will be a common theme), and it was perfectly good.  Would I say walk out of your way to find it?  I wouldn’t go across the city to do it, but if you’re in the vicinity you should stop in.  The pizza was as solid a pie as I’ve gotten anywhere, but didn’t go beyond.  The menu is simple, there’s not a whole lot of fancy pizzas to order, but the price is nice and it will definitely hit that pizza craving spot.

Ristorante Mastro Ciliegia
Piazza di San Pier Maggiore, 4R, 50122 Firenze

Another good pizza stop, one that was not suggested by anyone but rather we just stumbled upon because we were hungry (and hungover).  Its rather pleasant setting in Piazza di San Pier Maggiore actually made it one of the more relaxing parts of the trip; we got to people watch in a piazza that wasn’t huge so the low noise level was enjoyably peaceful.  Try the truffle and prosciutto pizza — it’s excellent there.

Osteria Vini e Vecchi
Via dei Magazzini, 3, Firenze

From the outside you might mistake this place for a tourist trap, especially since it’s super close to the Uffizi.  Don’t be fooled.  This great mom and pop restaurant had one of THE best Osso Buco’s I’ve ever had.  Add a Pappardelle with duck and you’ve got yourself one helluva meal.  It’s a perfect spot for a low-key meal after the museums.  And if you’re so inclined, we got a tip from a friend to ask the waiter for some of their homemade limoncello that wasn’t on the menu.  When we did that, the waiter gave us a little grin, a wink, and brought out a bottle with two shot glasses and a pat on the back that felt like he was saying, “If you know this exists, then you’re in the club”.

Ristorante Osteria Zio Gigi
Via Folco Portinari, 7-r, 50122 Firenze

Here’s another place we just stumbled into, and again it was a big score on our parts.  This restaurant had a great local vibe, and boisterous atmosphere.  The staff really makes you feel like you’re part of an Italian family, like you’re their kids.  The chef, who by my best guess was maybe the father, came out of the kitchen frequently to loudly serenade us with Italian opera, much to the embarrassment of his female wait staff who had the faces of “Dad, stop it!” written all over them.  As for the food, it was excellent (like everything on this list), but we did a number on ourselves in this place.  Since this was our last dinner of the trip, we decided to go all out, and all out we did.  We each ordered a 500 gram florentine steak, which was already more than enough.  But on top of that we each had a plate of tortellini.  The food was amazing, but you know what they say, “Too much of a good thing…”  Even our waitress acknowledged the fat shits we were and gave us complimentary digestifs at the end of the meal with a hearty laugh telling us “This will help with your” while rubbing her belly.

Gelato

Just eat it.  Everywhere.  It doesn’t matter what place you go to.  We went to everyone’s suggestions and they were all amazing.  But if you HAVE to be directed somewhere, Gelateria Dei Neri is as famous and popular as gelato places get.

All the gelati
All the gelati