Last February, Rich and I started the process of plotting out the details of our wedding. With a guest list that would see people flying in from the United States, Australia, Sweden, Hong Kong, and Japan, we needed to find a venue and location that could mix the tastes of East and West, spark the curiosities of all, and work as a happy mid-point for everyone.
Why We Chose Hoi An for our Big Day
Hawaii was the obvious answer, but it felt too overdone and way too expensive for our low-budget wedding. Thailand was the next place to pop up in our minds, but given the number of expat weddings many of our friends in Hong Kong have collectively been to in places like Phuket and Koh Samui, we decided to steer clear of the country.
Looking back over my travels through Southeast Asia over the past few years, we ultimately decided on Vietnam. I fell in love with the country back in 2011, when a friend and I rode motorcycles through the country’s north-western region. At the time, looking up at the great limestone mountains, I remember thinking to myself that I wished my brothers could see this.
With Rich agreeing to my demands for a wedding in Vietnam, we settled on Hoi An to be our host town. A small coastal town and UNESCO heritage site, calling itself home to 88,000 people, Hoi An is a stunningly well-preserved example of a pre-20th century Southeast Asian trading port. It is the only ancient town in Vietnam to stay intact. The town retains an interesting fusion of local and foreign cultures, especially those of China, Japan, Spain, and France. A grid of over 1,000 crumbly, bright yellow houses and shops stand side by side, lining the town’s streets, plenty of pagodas and family temples woven in between. An open market and ferry quay stand along the river bank. There is also a beautiful 18th century Japanese bridge. Shops sell plenty of souvenirs and every which way you turn there are an abundance of tailors, all trying to hard sell you on cheap, well-fitting clothes. Lanterns, that are lit during the evening hours, are strung across Hoi An’s narrow streets.
Just 5 kilometers outside of town, lies Cua Dai beach. This sandy white beach displays some of the only evidence of true westernization in Hoi An – the beach is lined with resorts aimed at foreigners. Among these resorts, we found one that seemed to perfectly compliment the old town. The Victoria Hoi An Beach Resort & Spa is designed to mimic the look of Hoi An town, with small brick roads between rooms, and buildings replicating village houses with their clay-tiled roofs and yellow paint. The resort is about as charming as you can get in a town that exudes old world Vietnam.
Even better, this resort, its amenities, and the cost of a wedding ceremony was all well under our budget. We couldn’t have been happier to find this spot.
Getting to Hoi An
Getting into Hoi An is surprisingly simple, making the location even more ideal. Hoi An is less than thirty kilometers away from Da Nang International Airport, with direct flights to international hubs like Hong Kong, Singapore, Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. As of March 2015, taxis from the airport and into town have a fixed rate of 400,000 Dong, or about $19 USD (rates will vary over time, but there is a sign near the taxi stand listing the fixed rates to various hotels and Hoi An town). As well, there is an abundant supply of private car companies that will take you to and from town. There are also public buses leaving from Da Nang bus station to go to Hoi An, costing about 18,000 Dong per person, although foreigners tend to get charged an extra “foreigners fee,” upwards of 50,000 Dong.
Things to Do in Hoi An
Once in Hoi An, there is an amazing array of things to do. During the week of our wedding, the white sand beaches and cool ocean tides made for the perfect hangout for several guests who were coming from colder weather. Activities that people could do at the hotel like kayaking and sailing kept restless souls happy.
The town kept most content, as the group of us could wander through the open air market, eat from street vendors (street food in Hoi An is well prepared and though hygiene is viewed differently in South East Asia than the Western world, it’s quite safe), and enjoyed the various souvenir shops. The restaurants in Hoi An, as well, are remarkable. Most serve delicious local and Vietnamese food (the different provinces of Vietnam have their own special dishes), with some Western food for the homesick.
One place in town that seemed to occupy much time amongst our group was the tailor. Prior to arriving in Hoi An for the wedding, Rich corresponded frequently with one such tailor, Aobaba. Interested in saving money and getting properly fitted attire for the big day (a tailored waistcoat in Australia can cost upwards of $400) for himself and his groomsmen, Rich sent all his and his groomsmen’s measurements to Aobaba ahead of time, as well as instructions on exactly what type of clothing and materials they wanted. The prices that Aobaba came back with for the three were astonishingly good:
1 Pair of Pants: $75
1 Shirt: $35
1 Tie: $10
1 Waistcoat: $45
All together, the three gents who between them were originally getting 2 pairs of pants, 3 shirts, 3 ties, and 1 waistcoast, would be spending $330 – cheaper than getting one waistcoast tailored in Australia!
I say originally, because when a group of about six of us wandered into Aobaba after lunch to get the gents fitted for their wedding attire, everyone got a bit happy-go-lucky. Nearly everyone there that day, plus everyone who came for the subsequent fittings, bought as much tailored clothing as deemed reasonable – there were plenty of suits, shirts, dress pants, and dresses made for our party that week. Several items were made and fitted within a day or two. The lot of us I think were quite impressed with the quality and speed of it all, but you can judge the results for yourself:
There is plenty around the area as well. Two days prior to the wedding, a group of us rented motorbikes for 200,000 Dong per bike and rode the 32 kilometers to Monkey Mountain, also referred to as Son Tra Peninsula, just outside of Da Nang. The very lush and green National Park stands 693 meters above sea level and is home to the rare Red-faced monkey. Riding along the winding road to the top of the mountain is stunning, as the twists and turns reveal some incredible views of the ocean and the town below. The hill does get quite steep however, which turned out to be a bit of a problem for my youngest brother. His motorbike was a bit weaker than the rest and couldn’t quite support the weight of his rugby muscle. At times he was forced to dismount his bike and push it up the hill. On the bright side, we did get to watch as a set of monkeys swung and ate their way through an expanse of greenery.
While Rich and I did wedding prep, our guests also explored some of the more ancient sites around Hoi An and Da Nang. One such place is the My Son Champa Ruins, a sanctuary and religious center for the capital of the Champa Kingdom. The site is heavily damaged partly due to aging, but also due to bombing during the American-Vietnam war, and the temples are now mostly ruins. However, as we’re told, the ruins which lie off the main road and in the jungle are still quite impressive as restoration work continues.
Another site of note is Marble Mountains, between Da Nang and Hoi An. The cluster of 5 limestone mountains generally has an unfavorable reputation due to the hassling of locals looking for easy tourist money, but by going at the right time (sunrise or late afternoon) the mountains become a lovely place to visit. A main cave houses a Cham Buddha sitting under a shaft of natural light, and there is no lack of grottos, pagodas, and meditation areas amongst the mountains.
Beyond that, there are plenty of local tours to do; some of our friends were able to take part in paper rice making, and there was a fair amount of talk regarding seeing the countryside by motorcycle sidecar. The best little adventure tour that we did came in the form of a snorkeling tour the day after the wedding. With water visibility generally clearing around February, a group of nearly twenty of us signed up for a snorkeling tour with Cham Island Diving. For $42 a person, we were able to get two dives, transfers from the hotel to the harbor, all equipment, snacks on board, lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant on Cham Island, all taxes and entry fees for the Marine Protected Area around the island, PADI insurance, and multilingual guides. All in all, I thought it was a pretty good deal.
Despite the water visibility not being the greatest (due in part to the time of year), the sea life was beautiful with a wide variety of fish and plants, and we snorkeled along two different sets of coral reefs. The water wasn’t the warmest, but whoever wanted one could use a wetsuit provided by the dive team. After the two dive stops, we were dropped off at paradise – a beautiful, long, white sand island beach, complete with lots of palm trees, hammocks, and a little local restaurant where we enjoyed a really excellent lunch. The restaurant was very good at handling any allergy concerns by making separate, but similar dishes for anyone who needed them. It was an absolutely beautiful day and, I know, a highlight of the trip for several of our guests.
Hoi An really was the perfect place for the wedding, not only because it forced our family and friends to visit a country likely not on the top of everyone’s list, but because of the town’s incredible charming nature and the plethora of activities to keep our group occupied and happy.
In Case You Were Wondering: The Wedding
For those who are interested, the wedding was great – beyond mine or Rich’s expectations. There is no doubt in either of our mind’s that we chose the right venue in the right town. As I’ve noted there is plenty to do and see in the area and we couldn’t be happier with that, but the hotel and everyone involved in our wedding day was unbelievable.
From Day 1 of planning, the staff at the Victoria Hoi An were incredibly helpful. Their email response times were super quick, making us feel very secure in our decision to use the hotel as our venue, and they were easy to negotiate with in regards to what we needed. When we arrived in town for the wedding, the Food and Beverage manager was great about checking in with us each day to make sure that things were alright, or to update us on the status of various things that we inquired on. The hotel even went out and hired two make-up artists for myself and my bridesmaids just a day before the event.
On the day, the hotel decorated the reception venue, set up a bonfire for us, worked with us to make sure that the food was right, were very good about making sure that our party was not interrupted by gate crashers, and set up the entire ceremony. They didn’t even get upset with us when we nearly lit a building on fire with a sky lantern – rather they immediately acted and saved the incident from becoming a fiasco. Everything ran so smoothly and on time thanks to a tremendous effort from the entire staff. We couldn’t have been happier.
We were also very lucky to have found the wedding officiant that we did. Peter Mahomet, an Aussie living in Hoi An, was someone we had randomly stumbled across on the internet – finding only his email address and a note that he was a celebrant in Hoi An. We initially had only been finding companies that would arrange weddings for us for a whopping and unnecessary $1600 fee, when all we really needed was someone to stand up in front and pronounce us man and wife. So when we found Peter’s email address, we figured that we may as well reach out to him and see what he might be able to do for us.
After deciding that Peter seemed trustworthy enough to not run away with our deposit and never hear from him again, we started the process of planning the details of the wedding with him. From the get go, he was an absolute blessing. Peter agreed to not only work as our celebrant, but as our MC, and in turn our entire wedding planner. He introduced us to a DJ, a cake maker (who made the most magnificent cupcakes for our wedding), a tailor, and a photographer. Thusly, Peter took so much pain and stress off our hands. Beyond that, the day before the wedding he came to the Victoria, discussed with us exactly what we wanted and needed, and if we hadn’t already planned for or thought to do something, he would immediately turn to the hotel staff and tell them what was needed and when. Peter took a mess of a vision that we had and turned it into a brilliant event.
The actual wedding went off without a hitch. It was quite literally perfect for what Rich and I wanted. The hair and make-up was great (despite my inability to get comfortable with false eyelashes), the flowers were stunning, and the ceremony was set up on a stretch of grass dotted with palm trees, overlooking the ocean. Peter’s leading of the ceremony was just the right balance of light-hearted and serious, keeping the mood jovial.
As the sun set, we enjoyed some lovely cocktails and canapés before dark and the lighting of our sky lanterns, one of which I previously noted nearly burnt down a building as it got caught on its roof. Thankfully, the hotel staff were so calm about it. Watching all those lanterns float away into the night sky was really beautiful to behold.
Dinner was set up by the pool for what turned out to be a fantastic reception. The food was amazing, our DJ, Jorn, was excellent – actually listening when people requested music and keeping to the overall feel of what we had wanted – and again, Peter performed very well as our MC, keeping everyone in high spirits. The bonfire made for a brilliant place for the bouquet toss, and an attempt at the conga saw half of our guests tossed into the pool, nearly causing Rich to lose quite a bit of Hong Bao that had been tucked into his waistcoat.
At the end of the night, as one of the groomsmen was trying to decide whether or not to get out of the pool, he loudly pronounced something that made the day feel even better, something that reassured me that we really had chosen the perfect place for our wedding and that we had done it right:
“Best wedding ever.”