Christmas in Hoi An


I booked all our internal flights on Vietnam Airlines on their website and had no problems with anything.  We left our hotel in Saigon at 7am for an 8:30am flight. (Read our Saigon/Mekong Delta trip report here.) That early there was no traffic and we were at the airport in about 15-20 minutes.  Easy check-in, though we were not allowed to carry on our rollaboards – we carry on all of our luggage, but we had anticipated that this might happen for our internal flights and were ready to check them if we needed to.  Only disappointment was that I had two pairs of nail polish that I was bringing along to put in Lauren’s Christmas stocking.  They were correctly placed in my liquids bag and had safely made it all the way to Saigon.  However, here they said I could not carry it on because “it might heat up and explode- no nail polish”!!  The really annoying thing was that no one else in the family even took out their liquids bag, but I thought I needed to – I am guessing if I had not taken it out they would not have noticed – oh well, a minor loss.

An easy one hour and ten minute flight to Da Nang.  Vietnam Air has a brand new terminal in Da Nang – just opened a few days before we arrived, so very nice, big and clean.  We were picked up by the hotel van.  We stayed at the Boutique Hoi An Resort


We arrived at the resort where they served us tea as they checked us in.  The front desk was very helpful, and we loved the minimalist décor in the lobby. We stayed in the 2 bedroom/2 bath villa right on the beach.  Great large bedrooms – the master bedroom was particularly spacious with fabulous king size bed (Stephen said “excellent bed” and he has back problems so is very particular).  Master also had couch, table, tv, laptop and opened onto a small terrace.  It was great for us all to be in one space but have our own bedrooms since the weather was not nice enough to take advantage of the beach and it was also nice to have the living room since we would be celebrating Christmas here.  Please note that if you stay in one of the villas it is a bit of a walk down to it, we did not find it a problem, but others might.

There were a few oddities in the room.  The shower/tub in master was oddly laid out with a deep shelf that you had to either step over to get into or sit on and move yourself around to get into.  The shower curtain was too short for the opening and the showerhead was positioned in the middle of the tub rather than on one of the ends so the floor got soaked.  The other weird thing was that we would have had a nice view of the ocean but there was a plastic green fence in front so the view was a bit marred.

The free wifi in the rooms was nice, though the kids said they had trouble connecting in their room so would come into ours to connect and then they were fine to move about the villa.  The free shuttle service was very nice, but I have to agree with other comments that it would be nice if it ran a bit more frequently, and sometimes they used a smaller van which could not hold everyone.  One time coming back from town, they brought the smaller van and there was not enough room for us, but they did kindly get us a taxi and paid the bill.

We arrived at the hotel, settled in and headed into Hoi An for lunch.  Okay, so I know there is a lot of controversy over Hoi An as well, but you can count us in as people who LOVE Hoi An!!  I never thought I would use the word “charming” to describe anything in SE Asia (well Siem Reap had some moments), but Hoi An was truly charming.  Yes, there are a lot of tourists but there are also a lot of locals in the markets, etc.  We live in Southern Oregon where there are two very touristy towns, but that does not mean that us locals are not real people!!  Anyway, we just loved the little shops, restaurants on the river, the market of Hoi An.  I think one of the reasons we enjoyed Hoi An, despite the fact that the weather was never nice enough for the beach, was some of the activities we did – some people complain that there is not a lot to do in Hoi An, but we found that not to be the case.  We loved our cooking class, street food tour, and bicycle tour – more details on those later.

Our first stop was The Cargo Club for lunch – a great restaurant for lunch/dinner or a yummy dessert, with a fabulous atmosphere.  A nice menu with a mix of Vietnamese and Western food.  Some of us had banh mi and others had salads.  Everyone enjoyed their lunch.

Next up was a stop at the tailor.  I had a list of  three tailors that I found recommended on the internet.  We walked by all three and Lauren and Holly did not like the feel of any of them, so I told them to put on their “radars” and pick where they wanted to go.  They picked ThuThuy Silk (60 Le Loi).  One of the things that we did not realize is when you walk on the street some places have a lot smaller storefronts than others, but many have large areas in back once you walk inside with a much larger selection of fabrics then what you can see from the street.  At least ThuThuy Silk did, so I am assuming others as well.  Also, they had a great wifi connection so you could look stuff up on the internet to show them.

We actually had a lot of fun with the whole tailor thing, particularly Lauren.  She was in heaven showing them a dress and blazer that she wanted on the internet, then working with them to tweak the design a bit to her specifications.  She says this was the highlight of the trip for her!! We all had one to two things requested and we were measured.  This was about 3-4pm and they said everything would be ready by 10am the next morning.

Now, I know I read about another family who had been in Hoi An at Christmas and they had a tailor make them all Christmas stockings!!  I thought this would be a great idea, we could all pick our own fabric and have custom made stockings.  Unfortunately, the ladies at ThuThuy just refused to do it.  We showed them pictures on the internet, and told them we would pick the fabric from them, but they just kept saying they could not do it.  Did not make any sense to me, they can make a dress from a picture in less than 24 hrs. but not stockings??  Anyway, they told us to go to this “bookstore”, gave us directions, as they said they had some Christmas decorations for sale.  We found the place, they did not have any stockings – only Santa hats, but they did have some smaller fake trees garishly decorated with lights and all different colors of tinsel.  We figured, what the heck, and bought one to keep in the villa living room!!  We did stop at another tailor to see if they would make stockings but they said no as well, so we decided to give up on that – we ended up just doing a tradition from some European countries and putting stuff in the kids shoes instead of stockings.  I’m pretty sure the taxi driver back to the hotel thought we were a bit crazy carrying this Christmas tree back, but the front desk at the hotel gave us sweet smiles!!

For dinner that night we went to Ms Ly’s (22 Nguyen Hue St).  We got there about 7:20pm and they were packed but he told us to come back in half an hour and suggested we have a drink at Bazaar just around the corner.

We had a nice rest at Bazaar than back to Ms Ly’s which was still quite busy but our table was held for us.  We decided to do her set menu of Hoi An specialties which included fresh spring rolls, fried wontons, white rose and Cao Lau (a pork noodle dish).  Ms Ly’s husband is American so very helpful in explaining everything on the menu.  We loved the dinner and enjoyed desserts of flambé and fried bananas.


What a great morning we had!!  I booked a street food tour with Neville Dean of Taste of Hoi An.  Neville had been a promotional speaker before he and his wife decided to retire from Australia and move to Hoi An.  He said after he lived here a few months he was in a local café when two young tourists walked in.  They looked at the menu saw that there was not any western food, and walked out.  He felt like running after them and saying – let me show you how great the local food is here – and the idea of Taste of Hoi An Street Food Tour was born.  Neville is truly informative and enthusiastic – he has truly found his passion!!

He picked us up at our hotel at 7:15am.  Then we picked up another group of four and off we went to a local market – not the main one in Hoi An, but another one just slightly further out.  We started out at a juice stand that made us a sort of smoothie like drink with ice and several kinds of fruit.

Let me stop here and state that Neville has built up relationships with certain people at the market.  And, in addition to his wife who helps make some of the yummy tastes you get at the end of the tour, he also has a Vietnamese woman who he lovingly refers to as “Bossy Boss” who he says is really particular about what we can eat and which vendors we can eat from.  For instance, one vendor gets her ice from a place that is ok for us to eat (I am not sure if she uses that ice for everyone but definitely for Neville’s guests each morning).  Neville and Bossy Boss take great care in making sure we can enjoy the food without having any tummy issues later on.

From there we walked through the market trying several kinds of herbs, fruit and other tastes along the way.

Neville has this great relationship with the women in the market – despite the fact that they can not speak English and he can not speak Vietnamese they have an amazing rapport, joking and laughing with each other.  We stopped and sat down in the little plastic chairs to have Vietnamese pancake, and a small bowl of pho.

We stopped and got some Xi Ma which looks like a soupy mud and tastes slightly like burnt oatmeal,  but is actually water-grass soup.

We continued to walk through the neighborhood then stopped at the White Sail restaurant where we all shared platters of fabulous local tastes.

A bit more walking until we reached our final destination – a private room in the back of one of the restaurants in town.

Here we got even more tastes of amazing food prepared by his wife and Bossy Boss while we were regaled with stories of food and culture.  My favorite line was “Vietnamese eat when they are bored of not eating.”  Lucky they stay so thin, but then everything they eat is also so healthy.  We were done around noon and were stuffed!!  We all loved this tour, and when I asked everyone at the end of the trip what their top 3 things were everyone named the street food tour as #1 or #2.

After the tour we went back to the tailor, tried on our clothes and requested some alterations.  Then we just walked around the town a bit again, stopping into little shops, walked across the river as well, before heading back to the room to rest.  Apparently, they are working on recycling in Hoi An.


Made some new friends!

Apparently, they are working on recycling in Hoi An.

Dinner was at Brasserie Cava (Hguyen Phuc Chu, 53) located just across the river.  The menu is Vietnamese and Mediterranean food.  We had lamb burgers, chicken kabobs and ribeyes.  Food was good, though nothing spectacular, the atmosphere was great and service was good.


Today was Christmas Eve.  I had booked a half-day bike tour with Heaven & Earth Bicycle Tour.  I originally booked the morning tour hoping that if the weather was nice we could spend the afternoon on the beach.  Well, our entire time in Hoi An it was gray and overcast – little bursts of rain for maybe 30 minutes once or twice per day but nothing that got in the way of doing anything (except sitting on the beach).  Well, since I knew it would not be beach weather and I thought the troops might have a mutiny if I told them we had to be up early again, I went ahead and changed our bike ride to the afternoon.  The day before while walking around town I noticed Heaven & Earth’s little stand so I stopped there and asked if we could change to the afternoon time which they said was fine (by the way they also have full day and overnight/home stay trips).

So, we all appreciated sleeping in, had a leisurely breakfast and took the 11am shuttle into town.  Stopped at the tailor for the last fitting where everything looked good, then went to Anthony Bourdain’s favorite Banh Mi stand where we got five delicious Banh Mi for $7.


Then we walked to the bike tour office for our 12:45pm tour.

We had another family of three with us, two parents and a daughter from France, but the daughter was studying abroad in HCMC.  The parents did not speak English so the daughter translated everything for them.  We met our two beautiful and charming Vietnamese guides.  These two young ladies were so delightful, very inquisitive, asking us many questions and very eager to answer our questions.  Spoke excellent English and very proud of their work in the tourism industry.

We started out with a 45 minute boat ride to a rural island with beautiful countryside.  Thoroughly enjoyed our time where we shared the dirt road mostly with the cows, chickens, water buffalo, bicycles, the occasional scooter and adorable children waving and saying “hello”.


Some of us chose to walk our bikes across this bridge.

We had a few stops to see straw mat weaving, inlaid pearl, basket boat maker, wooden boat maker and an ice maker.

You could also take your turn at paddling a basket boat in the river.

We only saw one other small group of tourists on the island and they were doing a walking tour.  Bikes were newer and in good condition with nice size baskets in front.  It is an easy ride on completely flat streets.  When we were done we took the local ferry back to Hoi An.   We were back about 5:30pm.

We had a 7pm Christmas Eve Dinner reservation at The Cargo Club, so quickly picked up our clothes at the tailor that we had already approved and paid for and went back to the hotel to freshen up.  The Cargo Club had a special Christmas Eve menu but you could also order off their regular menu which includes Vietnamese and western items.  Our group had chicken or duck curry, tagliata, steak, minestrone, black bean soup, white bean rosemary soup and caeser salad.  We had a fabulous dinner along with some of the yummy desserts.

We planned to go to mass at 9pm at the local Catholic church, so after dinner we headed up that way.  Now, they celebrate Christmas Eve kind of how we here in America celebrate Cinco deMayo or St. Patricks day – as an excuse to have a big party!!  Some of the stores closed a little earlier (7pm instead of 10pm), EVERYONE was out in the streets walking around, lots of kids in santa suits, people selling santa balloons, just a real festive atmosphere.

Many shops had also put altars with candles and food to remember their deceased.

But this all happens just on Christmas Eve night – Christmas Day everything is business as usual.

As we walked up to the church we noticed how crowded the streets were.  When we arrived at the church about 8:45pm they were performing a very elaborate Christmas pageant with children, adults and  even lifesize paper mache camels!!  Everyone was crammed in the courtyard of the church trying to watch.

It was clearly behind schedule as it appeared they kept having a problem with the sound system as they blew a fuse a few times while we were there.  It was not over until almost 9:30, and the rush of people were headed away from the church as people were leaving after the pageant.  We decided we were all pretty tired so decided to skip mass and just head back to the hotel.  A really great Christmas Eve day and evening.


When looking ahead to Christmas day I wanted to plan something that we could do all together, and since Christmas often has to do with cooking together I decided doing our cooking class today was a good idea.  There are tons of cooking classes to choose from, and even when you arrive just about every restaurant will do cooking classes, so you probably do not need to book in advance if you are not particular.  After reading a lot of reviews I decided to go with Van of Green Bamboo.

Before we left for Vietnam, Van sent us a long list of dishes we could make and asked us each to pick one.  The day of the class she picked us up at our hotel about 8:15am and we drove to the local market. It was definitely drizzling today, so we were happy that we would be inside for most of the day.  Van gave us each a “non la” (typical Vietnamese hat) to wear.  The guys declined but us gals wore them and found them excellent to keep off the light rain while we went through the market.

By this time we had been to local markets a few times on the trip, but we still learned so much. We went shopping for all the food we would need for our class, which we had never done before, and Van even asked us if there were any other dishes we wanted to make. Stephen piped up about a particular dish we had the day before with Neville, and Michael added the banana pancakes, so we added the food for those and ended up making seven dishes!  By the way, we were the only ones in the cooking class – I think max she can do is 6-8.

We headed back to her home where we cooked in the kitchen in her house.

This was VERY hands on – we did everything (No standing around and just watching here).

We had a fabulous time,  the kids LOVED it and we had a ton of food!  It was a fabulous way to spend Christmas day.

We were not done until about 3pm. Sometimes she does a morning and an afternoon class – I think the morning usually ends around 2pm. If you do the afternoon I believe it goes until the evening, and I think she has to buy a lot of the food in the morning for that class, so you would not be doing as much shopping in the market.  The things we made were Fresh spring rolls w/pork and shrimp, a noodle dish w/beef, shaking beef, chicken curry, Vietnamese pancakes w/pork & shrimp, banana blossom salad w/pork & shrimp and banana pancakes.

Van’s brother drove us back to the hotel after the class.  Then we finally had a chance to open our gifts.  – definitely the latest we have ever done that – EVER!! First up were our shoe stockings (tip do no’t bring white shoes to Vietnam).

Our Vietnam Christmas trees and decorations!

Repping the Portland Timbers in Vietnam!!

Had a nice relaxing late afternoon, and the kids headed back into town later that evening to do some last minute shopping – in Vietnam you can get a leg up on your after Christmas shopping by actually shopping on Christmas day!!  Stephen and I got a head start on our packing as we would all be leaving in the morning for Hanoi.

Next up Hanoi and Halong Bay!  Read about it here.

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21 responses to “Hanoi and Halong Bay”

  1. Micaela says:

    Hello! I just recently discovered your blog via tripadvisor. Loved all your Vietnam posts, thanks for all the info and photos! We are travelling to Vietnam (from Australia) for the first time in March 2013 with a pretty similar itinerary to yours and can’t wait!

  2. Oh wow…this post is like a dream to me! The photos are very inviting, looks like you had a wonderful time 🙂

  3. Elizab54 says:

    Thank you for your detailed posting! Found it via the forums on TripAdvisor. We were struggling with having to choose between Vietnam and Thailand for a 7 day trip in February 2013. Vietnam it is! (Given the time constraints, just seems like the right choice for us.) I think our families have similar traveling styles so perhaps I should read up on some of your other adventures for future travel inspiration!

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Glad the blog was able to help you make a decision – and I know you will have an amazing trip! Happy to answer any questions you might have. Hope you can be inspired from our other adventures!

  4. Scott P says:

    What a huge help. We are your Pacific NW neighbors (live in Seattle) and are doing Christmas in Vietnam this year! Taking our kids (10 and 12) for their first trip abroad. We are a little nervous that they are a bit young (for it to be fully enjoyable for all of us) but we are going to take it easy and just take it all in. You provided just enough detail and the photos are fantastic. I will now feel like I am returning to a somewhat familiar place. Thank you!

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Scott – We took our kids on their first trip abroad when they were 9 and 12. We didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out great and we’ve been traveling with them internationally ever since!! I think it’s good that your plan is to “take it easy and just take it all in.” Your kids will have a fabulous time, and definitely a Christmas to remember!

  5. Elizab54 says:

    I have one more question: did you arrange most of the trip yourself (sounds like you did) or did you rely on any tour operators to help you arrange tours, transportation, etc. in advance? Would love to hear your thoughts on how easy it is to make arrangements from North America, maybe what were your greatest resources for finding the right tours: whether it was street-food tours or your Halong Bay Junk boat excursion, where you felt you didn’t need help, etc. Thanks!

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Yes, I did do the planning and arrangements all by myself. I did not use any tour operators. I found all the guides/tours I used from posts and reviews on TripAdvisor. Then I contacted them directly via email. All of them responded quickly to my emails and were always very helpful in giving me all of the information I needed. I just booked with them directly via email. I did have our hotel in Hanoi actually book the Halong Bay tour, but I picked the company to use myself by reading TA reviews.

  6. Scott P says:

    Judy- How were the mosquitos that time of year (Hanoi, Hoi An, Mekong Delta)? Both of my girls seem to have sweet blood.

    • Judy Gambee says:

      We did come prepared with plenty of bug repellant (brought the wipe on kind), but didn’t really need it. We did not find any problem with mosquitoes at that time of year, particularly in central/north Vietnam (HoiAn, Hanoi) where the weather was cooler. My daughter is also favored by mosquitoes and she had no problems.

  7. You have amazing article about my country. thank you very much for your visiting. May i ask which is the best place in VIetnam? what is the place that you want to come back ?? Thanks again.

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Hoang – We loved visiting your country! Our favorite places were Halong Bay and Hoi An. We definitely want to go back to those two places. We also look forward to visiting Sapa and Hue on our next visit.

  8. Joan F says:

    Hi, we are heading to Vietnam in mid Nov so loved reading your of your family experiences. For better or worse we are on a small group tour, all friends of friends so it will be interesting to see how the group dynamics work out! However there are some free days in Hanoi and Hoi An so I was pleased to see your ideas for the bike tour, the street food tour, the cooking class and all your restaurant addresses and comments, very helpful thanks. From the reading I’ve done I feel that it wouldn’t be too hard to organise ones own tour as everyone seems to be so helpful. Starting to get very excited.

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Actually, when traveling with a small group of friends it may not be a bad idea to be on small group tour. That way you don’t have to worry about everyone agreeing on what to do next, someone just tells you!! Your free days might be a good time for people to do different things depending on their interests. For future reference though, it was very easy to organize everything on my own, and book everything online. Have a fabulous trip!!

  9. Angel says:

    Thank you for your great trip report on your vacation to Vietnam. I have spent my whole Sunday morning reading it and taking notes. Your detail and photographs are amazing. We are off to South East Asia at the end of June. Tickets are bought and now I’m doing research to book the actual trip. Though I will use a tour company, your blog gives me lots of ideas to impart to them. We are traveling with 3 kids ages 11, 9 and 5. They are well-traveled having gone on safari in South Africa at age 2 and 4. They have now taken 9 additional trips all over the continent of Africa and many trips all over Europe and the Caribbean. It was during elephant trekking in Namibia this past summer that they insisted on going to Asia for the next big vacation. So thank you again for all of the ideas. I am inspired!

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Glad to hear that you were inspired!! You will have a fabulous trip, we all loved Vietnam. I am just in the research phase of planning our first safari for June 2014, but due to the time of year I think we will be going to Tanzania, so will have to do South Africa at another time.
      Sounds like you have done some great traveling with your kids – have an amazing time in Vietnam!!

  10. Lillian Chua says:

    Fabulous! Love your blog!! Thank you for taking time to tell us all about it!
    We are planning to go this December and wonder if we should do the 2d1n or 3d2n on Halong Bay as it seems pretty cold and we are quite tight on time. Any suggestions, please?

    • Judy Gambee says:

      I would recommend just doing the 2D/1N. It was pretty cold while we were there – too cold to hang out on the beach or do any water sports. We loved our time on Halong Bay, but in Dec. I would just do one night – especially since you are tight on time. I hope to go back someday when the weather is better and do the 2 night trip!

  11. Grace says:

    Your article is very informative! I’m glad I found this. My husband and I are going to Halong Bay in November. We came from a country where the weather is either very hot or rainy, so we look forward to a chilly weather (but hopefully no rain) when we get to Halong Bay. It’s great that you posted pictures of indochina junk. We’re considering right now to book either the Red Dragon or the Dragon’s Pearl, and your pictures and descriptions will really help us to decide. Thank you so much! 🙂

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