Huỳnh Văn Hiên stands in front of a stall at the Central Market in Hội An, Vietnam, pointing out various packages of rice paper wraps used to make fresh and crispy spring rolls. Head chef at the on-resort Cooking Academy at the Four Seasons Resort, The Nam Hai, Huỳnh designs classes that run from one day to a whole week, designed to teach guests how to make traditional Vietnamese food.
We begin at the market, where Huỳnh is eager to share insider tips—including which stall sells the best shrimp—and it all ends back at the Cooking Academy where he walks participants through the creation of a four-course meal. We learn how to craft fresh shrimp spring rolls the correct way; discover what makes fragrant beef noodle soup so flavourful; and work on knife skills while chopping vegetables for tangy chicken salad.
It’s a great way to begin a stay at the resort, an expansive luxury property with 86 acres of tropical gardens on Vietnam’s central coast. Each room here is actually not a room at all, but rather a villa that feeds right onto the beach. And guests would regret not making a trip to the award-winning Heart of the Earth Spa, where a two-and-a-half-hour Signature Nam Hai Earth Song treatment of massage, body scrub, lemongrass-infused soak, and sound bath magically makes time stand still. Between the three beachfront swimming pools, and the traditional Vietnamese restaurant Le Sen, there is certainly a lot to be done on-property. Every villa also comes equipped with personalized bicycles for easy travelling between bed, breakfast, and spa.
When ready to get out into the bustle, though, the UNESCO Heritage Site of Hội An Ancient Village—a former trading port located along the Thu Bon River—is only a 10-minute drive away. There, discover the town’s vibrant yellow buildings, friendly shopkeepers, and zooming motorbikes. Take time to wind along the streets (some of which are pleasantly blocked off from said motorbikes during peak hours), popping into cafes for iced coffees, browsing stalls for woven bags, and visiting boutiques for tailored goods. Indeed, Hội An is known for its tailor shops, and getting a dress or suit made is a cultural experience all its own.
This charming town comes even more alive at night, when hanging lanterns glow different colours from above and even sprinkle the boats that dot the waterway. Before dinner, head to White Marble for a glass of chilled white wine on the patio, or perhaps Tadioto for a well-made cocktail in its hidden outdoor lounge. When time to eat, it’s hard to go wrong: there is Streets, a traditional restaurant that employs underprivileged youth (try the Bún Gà Nướng: grilled chicken over cold vermicelli noodles and fresh herbs); or Mango Mango, an upscale spot offering modern takes on classic dishes (get the Buddha’s Bite to start); or Bánh Mì Phượg, a sandwich shop made famous by the late Anthony Bourdain on No Reservations. Don’t let the line-up be a deterrent, as it moves fast and the bánh mì—just ask for “the pork” and you’ll get the works—is very much worth it. For something lighter, Cocobox has great smoothies, and Alluvia hawks well-crafted chocolate. In terms of coffee, it’s good just about anywhere.
Of course, there are historic sights as well, such as the 18th-century Japanese Bridge, the Tan Ky Old House museum, and many stumble-upon ornate ancient ruins. But really the best thing to do in this village is post up at an outdoor cafe along the river and watch the world go by. Sure, there will be a lot of selfie sticks, but there will also be farmers and craftspeople making their living, shouts and bicycle bells ringing through the air, and basil and green onion wafting with the wind. Hội An is a place that must not only be seen, but also heard and smelled. Most of all, it must be felt.
Read more from our Summer 2019 issue.