Fun for all the family in Hoi An, Vietnam
Larks with lanterns and fabulous food in Vietnam’s prettiest ancient town
The sparkling turquoise ribbon of water stretched as far as the eye could see. Past the lawns and the loungers and out to where the pool deck met the white sandy beach. And then there was nothing but ocean.
“Wow,” we breathed, standing in the heat of a Vietnamese summer’s day, my eldest daughter already rifling for her goggles in our battered beach bag.
We’d just arrived at the five-star Sheraton Grand Danang, one of the city’s newest hotels and boasting one of the longest pools in Vietnam. At a cool 250m, it could probably be one of the longest in the world.
I’d booked our mother-and-daughters trip to celebrate the end of a stressful, exam-filled spring for my older teen, and the birthday of her younger sister.
As any parent of older children will tell you, teens can be a fickle, tough-to-please bunch and I had selected DaNang as our short break destination with care. We only had a long weekend, so it had to be a punchy, direct flight (an hour-and-a-half in the air suited us nicely), sunny (Hong Kong’s wet season seems to have been interminable this year), and boast a spa, pool and mocktails, as well as having a few water-based activities to keep the conversation flowing.
The local market town of Hoi An just twenty minutes away also promised to keep things fresh if the ennui of a holiday with your 40-something-year-old mother started to set in.
And of course there was also the pool. If things started flagging, I figured I could always initiate a 250m swim challenge.
As Bonvoy Gold members, we’d been upgraded on arrival to a two-bedroom family suite which was large and extremely comfortable. It also had a mini-kitchen with sink and fridge which would be entirely useful for families with babies and toddlers.
The hotel is situated about 20 minutes from DaNang International Airport; Sheraton operates an airport transfer service, although taxis are plentiful.
The rather grand, marble bedecked entrance to the hotel is dominated by a huge chandelier – Sheraton Grand is a glitzy addition to the DaNang hotel strip.
The hotel was full of young families during our trip and offered a kids club and air-conditioned indoor soft play area (invaluable in the summer heat) as well as a baby pool and a family-friendly infinity pool by the ocean.
DaNang itself is situated in central coastal Vietnam and has a history as a French colonial port at the mouth of the Han River. These days it’s the fifth largest city in Vietnam and one of the country’s most important port cities. But for most visitors, the international airport is the most you’ll probably see of the city; the more culturally and visually attractive town of Hoi An old town is the drawcard of the area.
The strip of beachside main road that links DaNang with Hoi An is becoming increasingly populated with global hotel chains. The Sheraton Grand opened just last year and there are a host of hoardings along the side of the road advertising the imminent arrival of more big names in the years to come.
Visitors flock to Hoi An, renowned for its well-preserved old town, is a cultural melting pot, with a mix of colourful architecture from wooden Chinese shops to French colonial buildings and the famous Japanese Covered Bridge. In 1999, the old town was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO as a well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port. It is cut through with canals and at night these waterways come alive with floating candles and lanterns.
The little shops, delicious restaurants, colourful hanging lanterns and blooming bougainvillea ensure this is a tourist mecca and by late afternoon the streets are thronged with visitors. A top tip is to head to the town before midday when the crowds start to build up. It’s also worth bearing in mind it can be searingly hot in summer and there is little-to-no air conditioning inside the shops and restaurants.
The town is not to be missed after dark, when the waterways that cut through the town become a flickering mass of floating candles and lanterns. If you plan to eat out, book in advance, the most popular restaurants are perennially busy.
But it’s not all shopping and eating – Hoi An and the surrounding area offers heaps of fun family activities.
Cycle through the rice paddies
We took to the saddle with Grasshopper Adventures for a family-friendly foodie tour of the local area. Once we’d been allocated suitably sized mountain bikes and helmets, we hit the road in search of Hoi An’s oldest Bahn Mi joints. It was a punchy start as we devoured the fresh, French baguettes, stuffed with shredded pork and salad. But they totally hit the lunch spot. We then headed away from the congested roads of Hoi An and out to the rice paddies. A highlight here was stopping at an organic farm and enjoying a bowl of pho garnished with fresh herbs from the fields. After six food stops, we finished up after dark on the banks of the Tho Bon River for freshly barbecued skewers and a well-deserved round of drinks.The tour was well-organised, our guide had heaps of information to impart and every effort was made by our two group leaders to make us feel comfortable negotiating Hoi An’s busier intersections.
Visit the ancient city of Hue
The ancient imperial city of Hue is a two-and-a-half hour journey by tour bus or private car. Alternatively, there are trains from DaNang railway station with a journey time of around an hour. Why should you go? Hue is a charming town of major historical significance, located on the banks of the rather charmingly named Perfume River. It used to be one of the main royal capitals of Vietnam and the big draws today include the tombs of the ancient emperors; Tu Hieu and Tien Mu pagodas; the Huyen Tan Princess Temple with its lakes of lotus flowers; and the Imperial Citadel. Boats can also be hired on the river.
Cook-up a Vietnamese storm
Back in Hoi An, we unleashed our culinary ambitions at Vy’s Kitchen. Tam, our instructor, patiently showed us around the impressive open kitchens of Vy’s restaurant which was fascinating. We tried our hand at noodle-making, grinding rice flour, moulding the local white rose dumplings by hand and taste-tested the silkworm salad (yes, real silkworms!). We then set to work cutting pomelos for a salad and putting together some spring rolls. It was a fun morning and culminated with a huge lunch. Cooking classes can be booked through TripAdvisor or by dropping into Morning Glory or Cargo restaurants.
Chill at the beach
Many of the hotels along the strip between DaNang and Hoi An offer private beaches, but if you’re staying in Hoi An town itself and you don’t have any beach access, An Bang Beach is a popular option – think white sand with plenty of casual eating options and lounge chairs for hire. Shore Club is a pleasant private beach club for hanging out beachside with the kids and is a short distance from Hoi An. It offers shady VIP cabanas for rent by the pool and lots of casual eats, along with a cocktail menu.
Float away in a basket boat
Thung chai, or ‘basket boats’, can be traced back to the French colonial era in Vietnam. It’s believed that due to high taxes imposed on boat ownership when the French arrived in the country, the poor fisherman who couldn’t afford the tax invented the thung chai. It is a variety of coracle – a small, circular design of boat used all over the world – and was woven from bamboo. The fisherman argued that that they weren’t boats, they were baskets, and thus avoided the tax. They can still be spotted out on the sea or on the local waterways, and there are today a plethora of tour companies offering a paddling trips on the Thu Bon River.
We flew Cathay Dragon from Hong Kong, which is an hour-and-a-half from DaNang International Airport. We travelled in June, which is one of the hottest times of the year, with temperatures hitting the mid-30s. DaNang has a mild, year-round climate, with the coolest months occurring from November to February. The wet season runs from September to March, and the dry period from April to August.