Hoi An is a habitable relic. This Central-Vietnamese coastline town finds its origins way back in the 1st Century, evolving from an ambitious Champa Kingdom harbour into what would become (over a millenium later) the locus of South-East Asian trade. From the 15th to 19th centuries, Hoi An was positively buzzing with commercial and cultural growth. The port had dealings reaching across over Asia, Europe and Africa, such was the demand for the materials supplied in this idyllic coastal pocket. As such, exposure to different cultures and influences through trade and immigration (primarily Chinese and Japanese, mind) coalesced into the town’s own architecture and culture. This can be seen to this day, as once again Hoi An opens its gates to visitors from around the globe. The equally quaint and impressive sights of the town have been fastidiously preserved, recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historical importance.
I recently spent 3 days in Hoi An with a friend. Although my time there was fleeting, I can safely say it is one of the best places you could visit in Vietnam. I was lovestruck. Breezily wandering around Old Town, exploring beachy-jungle paths on bicycle, sipping Saigon Greens on the beach, alighting lanterns upon the river – this is a place you go to take it slow.
This is one place that should be on everyone’s Vietnam itenerary. Step back in time, and let Hoi An charm the socks off of you (because, like, its way too hot to wear them).
How to get there:
A lot of travellers get to Hoi An through the city of Danang, taking a bus or taxi to their hotel or the town centre. Once there, it isn’t too difficult to find your accomodation – Hoi An is pretty petit after all. If you don’t end up directly at your hotel there are plenty of taxis that can take you there. A journey even to the furthest reach of town shouldn’t set you back more than 40-50,000 vnd. Yet expect the occasional overcharge (this is Vietnam after all).
We arrived in Danang from Ho Chi Minh City. A return flight set us back about $100 each with JetStar Pacific (a bit expensive, but we delayed, so don’t follow our example). Whilst you can hop on a local bus for super cheap, we splashed out on the luxury of airport pick-up arranged by our homestay ($15 per journey, split between passengers) to take us from Danang to Hoi An. It’s fast and efficient with no fuss.
If you have time, I recommend stopping at the Marble Mountains to check out a few of the temples. Many buses stop here on the way to Hoi An, as it is a popular point of interest for tourists.
We stayed at the Loc Phat Hoi An Homestay-Villa, situated a wee bike ride away from Old Town in one direction and Cu Dai beach in the other. It is a great wee establishment with comfortable, clean rooms and idyllic garden surroundings. Our twin room set us back $15 each per night ($30 for the room). Breakfasts are awesome and you can hire a bicycle for $1 a day (which I highly, highly recommend). The owner Mrs Linh was very helpful, providing us with maps and recommending good restaurants and tailors.
The entire Cua Dai street is one long stretch connecting Hoi An and the beach, with plenty of accomodation options dotted about. Interstingly there are no official ‘hostels’ in Hoi An – perhaps to preserve the town’s image and not tailor it specifically to drunken backpackers. That said, plenty of hotels and homestays are in fact hostel-priced, so even on a budget you’ll find a place to rest your head.
Hoi An is small enough that you don’t need to use a motorbike. I understand that many people hire them when in the area (especially if they want to get to neighbouring Danang), but in my opinion you get so much more out of the experience if you use a bicycle.
Bicycles are cheaper, can access more areas and fit in better with the town’s general aesthetic and experience. Sure it’s a bit of exercise, but there’s nothing quite like taking in the sights at your own pace and exploring the little surrounding plots of land and villages with a camera and bottle of water in your basket. Save the speed and noise for Saigon, people.
There are plenty of places to park around Old Town, and many hotels provide bikelocks along with the bicycles they offer for hire.
As always though in Vietnam be careful when on the roads. Keep your senses about you and look both ways. Luckily in Hoi An there are plenty of wee bike paths and pavements that those cars and big trucks can’t access. And another thing – best to avoid cycling at night, even with a light on your bike.
A lovely thing about Hoi An’s Old Town are the signs stating that the area is strictly for pedestrians and cyclists only, as developers want to maintain its peaceful atmosphere. Not that that stops the occasional arsehole zooming over the Hoi An bridge on a Yamaha.
This town has wonderful food. From the famously well-run restaurants that dominate Old Town to the occasional noodle carts popping up on lunch-time street corners, you can eat well here regardless of budget.
There’s a wide array of choices to mull over; in town you can see hanging wooden signs inscribed in archaic fashion over the heads of cafes and eateries. ‘Ice Cream’, ‘Pizza’, ‘Cakes’ – a fanciful display tastefully set across the riverside promenade. People stroll by in their sunglasses and tanktops, popping in and out of such establishments on calm whims. Across the street sun-wrinkled old men sit under umbrellas, offering passers-by cheap bottles of water and cigarettes. It’s sights like these that remind you that the hustle of modern Vietnam awaits outside Hoi An’s tranquil bubble.
When thinking of filling your belly, there are three things I advise you try:
1. Mì Quảng.
Forget Phở. As far as Vietnamese noodle soups go, Mì Quảng is the king of them. The dish is more noodle than soup, boasting a hearty mixture of a beef, shrimp, quail’s egg, spring onion and chive, served with beansprouts, banana leaves, a sprinkling of peanuts and Vietnamese-style poppadoms. There’s enough protein in there to fill you up, and it tastes pretty damn good too. Many restaurants and street vendors serve it alike, albiet some in fancier bowls.
2. Morning Glory Restaurant, 106 Nguyễn Thái Học.
Perhaps the most famous restaurant in Hoi An, and for good reason. As soon as you walk in you see a number of uniformed chefs at a starter preparation kitchen, situated as an island in the middle of the restaurant. While your Ban Xeo gets prepared only a few metres within eyeshot, you can mull through a menu full of both Vietnamese and Western dishes, all advertised and priced as tantalising prospects.
The food speaks for itself. There is a reason why everyone goes here.
3. Cargo Club Cafe & Restaurant, 107 Nguyễn Thái Học.
Right across the street from Morning Glory stands the Cargo Club, an excellent restaurant-come-patisserie with awesome views over the river and bridge. The establishment is divided into two stations: the first being
a wonderful bakery with all sorts of cakes, tarts, quiches and pies being prepared and on display, and the second a fantastic restaurant with a diverse menu, reasonable prices and rich, delicious tasting food.
We came here on the night of Hoi An’s monthly full moon festival, where the town temporarily reverts back to centuries old tradition. Many street lights are switched off in place of hanging lanterns, with a soft fiery glow emanating from hundreds of paper lanterns released on the river. We were lucky enough to get a beautiful view of Old Town from Cargo Club’s rooftop terrace, indulging in an experience unusually lavish for teachers used to chowing down on street corner Banh Mi.
I ordered beef coconut, which was literally a beef curry cooked and presented within a coconut. To add to my gastronomical joy, they set it alight – placing before my hungry chops a big flaming coconut that I mourned as I destroyed its beautiful presentation.
Hoi An is world-famous for its tailors. You can get beautiful, well-fitted clothes for an affordable price, with the majority of places offering you a choice of materials, fabrics, styles and suggestions.
Bebe tailor is the pricier but the definitive establishment in Hoi An. When you enter you are greeted by a personal consultant who sits you down and discusses your choices. Around the shop are shelves full of all sorts of fabric, some patterned some plain, some cotton some silk, just waiting to be transformed into someone’s work shirts or graduation dress. I myself had a shirt and some trousers made here that I rejoice in wearing when I get the chance. They make you look daaaamn fine.
There are plenty of cheaper, and just as reputable places around. Hoi An is full of tailors, lots with their owners standing at their entrances shouting “Sir, Madam!” at passersby. Xuan Tailor is an honourable mention. I can safely say, once you buy clothes tailored to your specific body measurements, there is very little that will look as good on you. Once you go tailored, you never go… wayward?
Avoid crazy tailor bitches. My friend had a few dresses made by a woman who quite pushily asked her to come to her shop. When the dresses arrived the next day, half of them weren’t what she asked for. My friend pointed this out to the lady who then proceeded to snatch the dresses out of her hand and and scream “YOU PAY, YOU PAY!”. After refusing to pay back her deposit, refusing to compromise and give her the well made dresses and holding my bicycle for ransom, it was clear that not everything or everyone here was completely hunky dory. As my tailor said to me after the event, “she is so crazy”. I concur my good man, I concur.
What To Do:
The main attraction to Hoi An is it’s charming, wonderfully-preserved Old Town. As you approach you will notice the architecture beginning to take on dusty yellow and red hues, which subtly strings the whole collection of buildings together. The streets leisurely transform from tarmac to stone, initiating the steps back in time you are about to take. The buildings are refreshingly low-rise in comparison to Saigon’s imposing house-come-Tetris-towers. Wooden signs dangle underneath each shopfront, tailor and restaurant, creating a picturesque scene by the river running through the town.
You’d think you were strolling by the French riveria at times, if it weren’t for the women in conical hats peddling ponchos and the herds of rowing boats docked up by the shore (you’ll never miss out on a Hoi An boat ride thanks to good old fashioned Vietnamese persistence).
When in Old Town take time to explore. There are a variety of museums, art galleries, houses, assembly halls and even performances to visit. You can buy a day ticket by the Hoi An bridge for just over 100k, which allows you to visit 5 different attractions. After buying the ticket you will also be given a complimentary map that marks out points of interest. At each attraction there is someone who will tear off a stub on your ticket and then leave you to wander on your merry way.
The attractions themselves vary in terms of the impression they make.
We visited an ‘Ancient house’. There are several centuries-old family homes dotted about Old Town, wedged in grand wooden splendour between souvenir shops and tourist information offices. People still live in these houses, the current generations of family lines dating back hundreds of years. Whilst I understand that this may be an effective means of income, the idea of allowing strangers to walk into your home and take photos seems pervasive. All that family legacy brought down to a ticket stub.
We were met by a sleepy old man rising from his chair. “This is my house. We have lived here for over 500 years. Go inside”. A rehearsed speech in broken English that indicated his lack of passion for the situation. Whilst the structure of the houses are impressive, the interiors haven’t been able to escape the clutches of modernity. Save for a few family portraits depicting the heads-of-family of past generations, we stumbled into a kitchen/courtyard where a trio of women sat preparing lunch and playing Angry Birds.
Hoi An’s museums are informative and boast well-kept historical displays. Artefacts include everything from clothes to beds, tools to traditional festival props. A personal favourite was an old raincoat on display at the Museum of Folk Culture, fashioned out of Palm leaves [see picture below]. The museums are big, multi-storey establishments that allow you ample time and space to wander and ponder. It’s definitely worth checking one or two of these out, as their contents help to flesh out Old Town’s ancient architectural skeleton with things more in keeping with its time.
The most physically impressive place on our visit was the Trieu Chau Assembly Hall. This huge structure and accompanying courtyard is one of several situated around Old Town. They were built centuries ago as places of community and worship by Chinese immigrants who chose to settle in Hoi An during its trading heyday. They are beautiful structures boasting both grandiose and intricate detail. Everything is wonderfully designed from the lampposts to the altar, where you could spend hours pottering about finding hidden details in the most unassuming of places (a personal favourite were the mini-castles and dragons sculpted within a fountain for goldfish). These places do bear spiritual significance, so watch your attire and behaviour. As you walk inside, lavish jade and marble pillars and seats face a generous shrine to Buddha, with giant cones of incense hanging above, their scent wafting around the hall.
Beyond Old Town
There are a few sights outside Old Town worth the trip. If anything, the trip itself is worth the trip. Hoi An is pocketed in a beautiful coastal-jungle environment, with lush vegetation, a long river, several beaches and an easy-to-follow selection of roads and paths. You could spend days just pottering about on a bicycle. I even came across a village, a farm, locals drying Palm leaves on the river bank (who shook their heads and said no when I asked to take their picture) and a surprising amount of ducks.
Just 2km west, a short jungle-path bike ride away, lies Pottery Village. Well, it’s more of a house. It’s a family run attraction whose hosts are super friendly and possess a great knowledge of the art of pottery. You can choose to either browse and buy their various handmade crafts on display, or partake in a personal pottery-spinning lesson courtesy of one ticket stub.
Cu Dai beach is perhaps the most popular out-of-Old Town destination. When cycling there, you’ll see many fellow tourists wheeling or zooming on their way to sit by the beach and zen out. The ride is beautiful, despite the occasional taxi or truck gettin a bit too close for comfort. The beach itself is nice enough, with places to buy cheap beer and enjoy some leisure time. However,
there are an annoying number of salespeople going around trying to sell you bracelets. Across the ocean you can see the impressive looking Champa Islands, which you can access by boat. If it rains, que sera sera. The most fun I had on the trip was cycling back in the pouring rain, soaked and satisfied to the core.
The Full Moon Festival
On the full moon of each calendar month, Hoi An becomes a luminescent spectre. The streets are packed as streetlights go out, replaced by the glow from inside restaurants, hanging lanterns and the flickering from naked flames dancing on the river. It’s an homage to ancient times, as the town rekindles its cultural and tradintional roots.
During the festival there are a number of curious street performances depicting Vietnamese tradition. There is singing, dancing and acting – some very beautiful and some, well, a little strange to the foreigner-type.
Yet the most alluring action finds itself by the river. Dozens of men, women and children sit by the river, peddling the iconic paper lanterns all lined up on display and ready to be released on the water’s surface. You can buy one for $1, place it carefully onto the river with a special pole designed for such a purpose. It takes a steady hand and a bit of concentration to make sure your lantern survives the contact and doesn’t drown. Once safely placed, you can watch in peace as your little flame drifts up along the river joining hundreds of others, all wandering in a soft glow into the night.
The last thing we did that night was take a boat upon the river. Our driver was a cheerful elderly gentleman. For seventy years he’s been rowing up and down the Hoi An river, each month watching countless lanterns from countless souls drift on by. He said that by releasing a lantern you are releasing your bad luck. The ritual is essentially a purge, a spiritual cleanse. We sat in silence, as the old man said a prayer and released three lanterns, one by one, onto the water’s surface.