Arriving late afternoon in Hoi An, the sunset cast a golden light whichever way I looked. I took this as a good sign.
Hoi An escaped the bombardments during the war and today it’s become a must-see for many travelers.
It offers a variety of things to do including its historic old town, biking through rural villages and taking a closer look at life on the river.
Indulge in street food and local coffee, visit a temple or have a dress tailored exactly as you imagine.
Anything is possible here.
Listed as a Unesco Heritage Site, the Ancient Town is the most authentic part of Hoi An and also the most visited. No cars or motorbikes are allowed in this area during certain times making it a perfect place to walk.
You could also rent bikes or hire a tuk-tuk.
The old town is laid out as a series of narrow alleys and winding paths which open up to wider streets lined with traditional and colonial architecture.
Much less hustle and bustle than Hanoi but still, at midday, you won’t be alone.
We found that the best time was early in the morning!
Chinese, Japanese, French and Vietnamese influence can be seen throughout the Ancient Town’s architecture, including pagodas, traditional homes, and bridges.
PHUC KIEN ASSEMBLY HALL
Phuc Kien Assembly Hall, also know as Fujian, was created in the late 1600’s so the Chinese community could have a central meeting place when visiting Hoi An.
On the inside, there is a sacred temple dedicated to the sea goddess, Thien Hau, known for protecting sailors from the danger of the seas.
Is it break time yet?
JAPANESE COVERED BRIDGE
This small covered bridge is walking distance from anywhere in the old town.
Also known as Pagoda Bridge, because of the small temple on the north side. The bridge was built by Japanese traders who used it to cross over the canal into the Chinese side of town.
A pair of dog and monkey sculptures symbolically guard the entrance and represent the Chinese year corresponding to the start of the bridge construction and its commemoration.
You do need to buy a ticket for all Unesco Heritage Sites you visit in Hoi An, but for some reason when we crossed the bridge no one asked.
From the old town, cross over the An Hoi bridge to the other side of the river and walk a few minutes to the right.
The main street parallels the river and is lined with restaurants, coffee shops, bars and of course the night market which is very lively.
If you walk past the main street, deeper into this neighborhood you’ll find no tourists and be immersed in Hoi An’s traditional life outside the old quarter.
We went to the night market in low season but crowds seem to be there year round.
It’s not very big but you can buy souvenirs, handcrafted items, jewelry, glazed bowls made of coconuts and of course lanterns.
Whether at the market or inside a shop, you really should bargain a bit. Most often a very high price will go down considerably if you negotiate nicely or with some friendly humor.
Lanterns everywhere. Hoi An is THE city of lanterns!
They come in all shapes and sizes, multiple decorations and colors. Some have the advantage of folding up flat so it fits nicely in your suitcase 🙂
By the river, vendors will sell you a small paper lantern so that you can place it on the water and have it float away.
Each month during the full moon, Hoi An shuts down its electricity and restaurants, bars and shops rely solely on lanterns to light up the town.
CAM KIM ISLAND
We like easy bike riding. In Hanoi, we didn’t have the courage because of the chaotic traffic, we had trouble crossing the street let alone bike riding!
But we had a great time on bicycles in Mai Chau.
In Hoi An renting bikes is easy and recommended especially since we wanted to go further out onto Cam Kim island.
After boarding the bikes and enjoying the 20-minute relaxing ferry ride, we were pedaling away happy.
The rural island of Cam Kim is about boat builders, wood crafters, mat weavers and incredible scenery from rice fields to luscious dense vegetation.
Very peaceful and nearly car-free, this is the place to wander to your heart’s content without crowds.
We went with a small group of university students who offer their guiding knowledge, and in exchange, we speak English so they can practice.
We did the same thing in Hanoi when visiting the Temple of Literature and it’s really a great way to converse with locals who know a lot about their country and a bit of English.
Their goal is to become fluent and they work hard at it.
Wood sculptors are concentrated in Kim Bong village, the area next to the boat dock. Their workshops are open to all if you’re interested in buying unique pieces and learning more about their trade.
Cycle deeper into the village to see the changing scenery and immerse yourself with each mile into the village life.
There are many traditional houses here and most have their doors wide open. You get a close-up view of family life. Kids wave as and locals welcome you on their territory with a smile.
In most homes, there is very little furniture, yet the TV occupies a central place in the main room. Everywhere we went it was always on even if the family was busy doing something else.
One woman told me that during a flood the first thing they save is the TV.
And the second is grandma.
I hope it was a joke.
Typhoons, however, are no joke during flood season in October – November.
Families are forced to move all their belongings to the second floor of their home to avoid damage. Second floors or large mezzanines are built in order to have a safe dry place to sleep and store food. Those who can’t afford a second floor seek shelter at the hospital or school.
Hot! Very hot. I don’t know how these women manage to carry so much weight on their shoulders in this humidity.
Seems easier on a bicycle as it creates a welcoming breeze. We took a break every now and then in the fields to spot water buffalos.
Stop and talk to an elderly woman and her son. A family of weavers. Ok, we mimed instead of talking.
Like many families on the island, they make wonderful and unique mats using colored straw stems that have been dried in their yard.
The son weaved very fast and knew what he was doing, but I couldn’t help but notice that he always kept looking over at his mother’s technique!
Cam Kim is also known for its excellent boat crafters. It’s a hard business and involves elaborate techniques, such as soaking the wood for a long time in order to make curves or a specific shape.
Each boat whether big or small, have eyes painted on the front of the bow, yet no one can explain the real reason for this practice. Most people I asked talked about the Vietnamese being superstitious and the eyes are a means of protection.
During the north-south war, boats were recognizable according to the shape of the eyes.
Boats from the south had round eyes, those from the center of Vietnam had more stretched out ovals, while those from Ha Long were drawn out with much more detail.
After learning about the island’s trade we made a stop to quench our thirst and just watch life go by in the shade.
The relaxing ferry ride back allowed us to take in some well-needed rest.
ON THE WATER
Back in the old town, we strolled along the river. The port of Hoi An was once a bustling and important entry for international silk and spice trade.
Times have changed.
Today the colorful boats that line the river are mostly for taking visitors out to the countryside.
Gliding down Thu Bon River is a great way to see fishermen at work and explore nearby villages.
Fishermen use the same gestures when stretching out their fishing nets towards the sky. The calmness of the waters, the silence while swirling their yellow net in the air with the same gestures. Each time.
To us, it seemed very poetic somehow.
But when I tried it, the poetry vanish immediately. It’s quite an art!
Fishermen also use basket boats, also called thung chai to transport certain goods. Made with bamboo strips, they are transportable and very practical. And basket boats are a lot of fun! Especially when you can’t figure out how to stop going around in circles.
Try paddling along the river and see life up close.
HOI AN MARKET
Of course, I couldn’t leave Hoi An without taking a peek at the market.
It’s actually pretty big so I took more than a peek. We got there early in the morning and it was manageable. But by the time we left crowds were everywhere!
Some hard bargaining going on here between locals over fruits vegetables and other products like spices and dried shrimp.
AN BANG BEACH
Cua Dai beach is where most tourists go and the closest beach to Hoi An, but I didn’t enjoy it. Due to erosion problem caused by rough winter storms, there is little sand to stretch out on.
Instead head a bit further north to An Bang Beach, it is not really a “must see” but if you want to spend some time at the beach, then this is it.
Sun loungers, restaurants, and a beautiful view! The beach is clean, the sand is soft and you can relax with some refreshing coconut juice.
Be prepared however to just say no if pushy vendors come your way.
For quiet spots, you have to walk further down the beach where there are fewer restaurants and sun chairs.
You can cycle the 5km from the Hoi An’s old town – cut through the rice fields and treat yourself to some beautiful scenery on the way!
Or you could also take a 5-minute taxi ride.
HOI AN TIPS
Hoi An does not have an airport, nor a train station. The easiest way is to fly into Danang. There are regular flights from Hanoi or Saigon and if you check the specials you can get a cheap ticket. From Danang a car is necessary and it takes about 45 minutes to reach Hoi An.
If you have a lot of time you could also take the overnight train from Hanoi, it is a long 15-hour overnighter and not the most comfortable. But doable.
Beware of Prices
Hoi An during high season often equals high prices. They fluctuate according to the size of the crowd. Either learn to bargain, or find other options just further down any side street where most tourists don’t wander.
Tailors in Hoi An
Talented tailors have shops all over Hoi An.
Shops for shoes, for dresses, suits or anything you may want.. If you decide to have something made, make sure you go when you arrive in Hoi An and that you know exactly what you want. Your order can be delivered to your homestay or hotel, but you will have to get measured at least twice and allow time for alterations.
In summer Hoi An can get extremely hot and very humid.
Perhaps not as much as in other parts of Vietnam, as Hoi An is in Central Vietnam, but still, it can get very uncomfortable.
Stop plenty of times throughout the day to have refreshing drinks and keep your hat/cap on to protect yourself from the sun.
Look for shady spots to relax and leave the intensive walking for early morning or late afternoons.
Hoi An is one of those cities that make you feel good. Walk everywhere. Try a tuk-tuk. Just relax. Go to the beach. Have a tailor whip up the dress of your dreams. Set sail a lantern and make a wish. Enjoy really good food.
Smile a lot.
Walk the Old Town. Together.
If you’re following a similar itinerary or want more information on Vietnam then read this post:
For a wonderful experience on Ha Long Bay check here: : How to Set Sail on Amazing HaLong Bay