Hoi An is midway between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City but feels a world away. Situated on the banks of the Thu Bon River, Hoi An dates back to the 1400s when it was a major port and commercial city between Europe and Asia.
The city was originally settled by the Cham people but with the advent of shipping routes, Japanese and Chinese traders settled here. Their influence is apparent in the old city’s architecture from merchant houses to places of worship. UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site in 1999.
Today, trade is centered in Danang, 18 miles away, making Hoi An a quieter, less hectic place to visit than the major metropolitan areas to the north and south. Exploring this charming city’s historical and cultural sites on foot, by bicycle, or by water taxi is geared towards slow travel.
And it is budget friendly. Hotels, meals, transportation, and entrance fees will run under $70 per day. Splurging on a stay in a historic hotel in Ancient Town bumps the cost to about $110 per day.
1. Hoi An’s Ancient Town
Side by side, 1107 buildings from the 15th to 19th centuries line narrow lanes that are pedestrian-, bicycle-, and pedicab-only streets by day. Most buildings are finished with gold-colored stucco with a few blue and green stucco buildings tossed in that serve as landmarks.
Since no cars are allowed in Hoi An’s old city, it lends itself to walking, exploring, meandering, and losing yourself in the shops, cafes, and the 21 cultural sites that allow visitors to step back in time.
Ancient Town entrance tickets (about $5), available at kiosks at the main entrances into the old quarter, allow visitors access to five of the 21 cultural sites. The sites range from temples and pagodas to merchant houses and a covered Japanese bridge.
Some sites are free but for those requiring a ticket, the ticket taker will tear off one ticket as you enter. If you choose to visit more than five sites, you’ll need to purchase another entrance pass with five tickets.
Temples with assembly halls contain fine examples of craftsmanship in mosaics, statues, and wood carvings. These were not only places of worship but also gathering places where trade and business dealings took place. The colorful Cantonese Assembly Hall (Quang Dong) and Fujian Assembly Hall are must see.
Two merchant houses to put on your list are Phung Hung and Tan Ky Old Houses. Descendants of the merchants whose homes were built centuries ago to welcome visitors. The houses have a shop in the front and family quarters in the rear. Period furniture and the ceramics that comprised a major portion of the traded goods are on display. Many families still live in their ancestors’ homes.
The Japanese Covered Bridge is perhaps the most visited off all sites and marks the entrance to the Ancient Town. The wooden bridge, built in the 1590s, is the symbol of Hoi An. Notice the characters above the entrance. They translate to “Bridge for passengers from afar.” A temple to the Taoist God of Weather, Tran Vo Bac De, is inside. Because of its popularity, visit the bridge in the morning.
The old quarter is also home to five museums. One museum focuses on ceramics, the others on history and culture. The Precious Heritage Museum (not one of the UNESCO museums) displays portraits by French photographer, Rehahn.
Free maps of the Ancient City are available at the kiosks where you purchase entrance tickets. Maps mark each of the sites and include a suggested itinerary/walking tour.
2. Lunar Festival
Ancestor worship is a part of everyday life in Hoi An, with gold chrysanthemums offered to loved ones. You’ll see gold chrysanthemums for sale at the market each morning and vases filled with the flowers mounted to the homes’ stucco walls.
Each month during the full moon, ancestor worship steps up a notch with a touching lantern festival. Hoi An’s old city is lit only with fabric lanterns and locals and visitors are invited to board painted wooden boats, light candle-laden origami boats, and set them free on the Thu Bon River. The price for the boat ride and lantern boats is negotiated (usually $15 to 20).
The biggest celebration happens on the lunar New Year. It’s on February 12th in 2021.
3. My Son
My Son is the area’s second UNESCO World Heritage Site and about an hour’s taxi ride from Hoi An. While the Cham people used the area that is now Hoi An as a commercial center, they used My Son as a spiritual center. Built between the 4th and 14th centuries, about 70 buildings remain including Hindu temples and burial chambers. Some building facades are simple; others have ornate carvings.
Bombing by U.S. Forces during the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam) destroyed many of the red-brown brick buildings. Those still standing do so even though no mortar was used during their construction.
A museum near the complex’s entrance describes the history of the site and houses statues and artifacts.
My Son is open from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is 150,000 VND (about $6.50).
4. Hoi An Market
Hoi An’s open-air market covers several blocks and sells everything related to the kitchen. Farmers bring fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruit by bicycle, moped, or more traditionally on foot. You may see women carrying bamboo shoulder poles and two perfectly balanced baskets heaped with produce to the market each morning.
Meat and fish are so fresh here that you’re not greeted with the typical smell of an outdoor market. No odor means no flies. Any meat or fish that doesn’t sell is cooked and used that day. Vegetables, fruit, and herbs are just as fresh and delicious.
Around the periphery of the market, stalls sell spices, packaged treats, housewares, and piles of gold chrysanthemums. Bargaining is expected.
5. Red Bridge Cooking School
Red Bridge Cooking School starts with a tour of the open-air market with the chef purchasing several ingredients for the class. His day starts at the market at dawn to buy the freshest food and plan the day’s menu.
The small-group class continues with a boat ride to the cooking school. The chef cooks some dishes while the class in pairs prepares several more. The best part? Sitting down to share the multi-course meal you’ve prepared and to toast the new friendships you’ve made during the half-day class.
Vegetarian dishes are an option.
6. Cultural Photography Tour
Hoi An 360 photo tours are geared for photographers of all skill levels and equipment. What makes this tour company unique is the combination of a gifted photographer and teacher, Alden Anderson, and a cultural guide and translator, Trinh Nyugen.
Whether your tour is at sunrise in Hoi An’s old quarter or farther afield meeting farmers and their beasts of burden, the experience is an educational one. Not only do you learn photography, you meet local people and learn about their culture. The very affordable tours are priceless.
7. Stay in Historic Vinh Hung Hotel
You can tour a merchant house in the old city, but you can also stay in one. Vinh Hung Heritage Hotel is such a place. The 200-year-old house is loaded with antique furniture in its former storefront now lobby/dining room. Handsome carved furniture and wood paneling date back to the house’s early days.
Here you’ll enjoy an expansive buffet breakfast with fresh fruit, flaky French pastries, and Vietnamese coffee and a home-cooked dinner if you choose to eat-in after a day of sightseeing.
Despite the age of the hotel, rooms have all the modern conveniences with large ensuite baths. If you happen to stay in Suite 208, you’ll be staying in the room Michael Caine used as a dressing room during the filming of The Quiet American.
The hotel is ideally situated in the old quarter. Several minutes of walking get you to the Japanese Covered Bridge, the market, and most temples. It runs about $88 per night during the high season but is well worth the price because of its history, central location, and meals.
For more information, visit the hotel website.
Outside the old quarter, modern, luxury hotels with inviting pools and spas are less than $50 per night.
8. Lantern-Making Class
Fabric lanterns in silk and brocade hang above the main streets in Hoi An’s old city. Even a Baskin Robbins shop has lanterns with their pink and brown logo running between their storefront and the building across the street.
Why are lanterns so popular in Hoi An? Vietnamese people associate lanterns with luck, happiness, and prosperity. If you have an interest in bringing that luck, joy, and wealth back home, learn lantern-making from the Lantern Lady during your visit.
9. Beach Time
When it’s time to take a break from your vacation, you’re in luck. Just head to one of Hoi An’s pristine beaches. Many are a short taxi ride from the old quarter. If you’re looking for a beach with restaurants, bars, and water sports, head to the very popular and busy An Bang beach, four miles from Ancient Town.
If you prefer a quieter experience, Cui Dai and Hidden beaches are also only a few miles away the old quarter. And if you favor an unspoiled, uncrowded, stretch of sand, with no fellow tourists, Binh Ma beach is 12 miles away from Ancient Town and a great place to recharge. All are located on the East Vietnam Sea.
With two UNESCO World Heritage sites, a lunar festival, tours, and classes, Hoi An is an ideal city in which to learn about the ancient history and culture of Vietnam. Its slower pace gives you a reprieve from the crowded sidewalks and the steady stream of mopeds on Hanoi’s and Ho Chi Minh City’s streets. Hoi An is a budget-friendly city and an attractive getaway for anyone wishing to escape cold winter weather.
Last Updated on March 16, 2020