Hoi An is a historic, ancient town in Central Vietnam and was a very busy international port once. Ships from all over the world came and traded here, but the Japanese and Chinese lingered and left their mark. You can find a mix of their and Vietnamese styles everywhere around the city. The American War left Hoi An virtually untouched and the preserved buildings of Old Town look exactly like they did a few centuries ago.
It’s “touristy”, yes, the streets are crowded with foreign and Vietnamese tourists and long lines of cyclos loaded (with mainly Chinese) tourists drive by all the time … and the street sellers are everywhere … but it’s great!
The ancient feel of the streets, the hanging lanterns that light up the Old Town at night and the laid back atmosphere. The many riverside restaurants and bars with tasty food and Bia Hoi, a ridiculously inexpensive fresh beer (3.000 to 5.000 VND for a glass. That’s ~0.15 EUR / USD!), can make time stand still and make you stay in Hoi An for longer than you initially planned.
And then there is that long stretch of sandy beach just 4 km out of Old Town.
Hoi An Old town
It was declared UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999 and is the main draw of Hoi An. It’s located on the banks of the Thu Bon river and closed to all traffic except bicycles. Riding a bicycle around the streets of Old Town is the best way to explore it … and well, just sitting in one of the many restaurants, people watching and and enjoying it is one of the main sports here.
Walking around the Old Town is free, but you have to buy tickets if you want to see any of the sights in the city. The price is 120.000 VND for a set of five tickets (you can’t buy less than that). There are eighteen attractions that you can choose from, but once you’ve seen one of the old houses, one Chinese assembly hall, one temple / shrine and the Japanese bridge (for which you need a ticket only if you want to cross it), there is probably no need to visit the others. It’s just more of the same. But if that’s your thing, just buy additional tickets and see them all!
In the evening, when the lights turn on, the Old Town really comes to life and is bustling with people. The street sellers hit the streets and one of the items for sale that kind of defines Hoi An are candles in cardboard boxes that float on the river. Usually kids or very old ladies (that know how to produce the nicest smile and the “puss in boots look”) sell them, which makes it hard to resist buying at least one … and I guess it works, because the river is always full of the floating lights.
And then there is the endless stream of ladies in small boats constantly shouting “Ellllloooo, boat raaai” … so much, that you stop hearing that after a while (you know, something like when you live near a train track and after some time you don’t even notice when the train comes by your house).
The restaurants close around 11 PM, but quite some bars stay open till the morning (almost all of them on the same part of the street – just go right when you cross the bridge and you should hear and see them shortly).
Where to stay in Hoi An
There are three possible locations:
- Old Town
- The beach
- The main road between the two
The answer on what to pick is very simple; if you want to spend most of your time on the never ending beach, just pick a place there and if exploring the old town is what you plan to do, stay in the old town.If your budget is limited or if you just can’t decide, pick one of the cheaper places (homestays) on the main road between the two. All of the places there have bicycles available (if not free the price is around 1 USD per day) and both the beach and old town are very close, so it’s easy to reach them with a bicycle. Motorbikes are also widely available, like anywhere in Vietnam. Price is around 100.000 VND per day.
It is worth noting that floods are not uncommon in the rainy season and you don’t really want to be in the Old Town if that happens. A nice article about that with a lot of images can be found here.
There beach seems endless. But beware, if you plan on visiting Hoi An in the rainy, winter season, then the beach is out of the question. The winds start blowing and the sea is very rough, so you can’t really go into the water … and with the majority of beach bars closed it feels kind of abandoned.
Each place in Vietnam has the classics, but each also has it’s own dishes, that you can’t really eat in other regions of Vietnam. One such dish in Hoi An is Cau Lau with special noodles, that supposedly only one family in Hoi An makes. You have to try it on one of the stalls (you’ll find one full of locals on the main road just above the old town).
There’s also a lot of western food available – pizza and spaghetti can be found everywhere. And almost every restaurant has fish and chips – didn’t really see that in any other parts of Vietnam.
Sights around Hoi An
The most visited is probably the Marble Mountain, which is around 20 minutes out of Hoi An and very easy to reach on your own with a motorbike. You go towards the beach and go left onto the main road heading along the beach and just drive straight until you reach a big sign and see the mountain on your left. There is very little traffic and the road is nice and wide. I’ve visited Marble Mountain on my way to Hue over the Hai Van Pass. You’ll find more information and pictures in that post.
Another popular sight are the My Son ruins (of the Cham empire), a 1 hour and 15 minute drive with a motorbike away. I’ve written a separate post about my My Son ruins trip.
You’ll also find the Thran Ha pottery village 2 km out of old town and it can be visited on the way to My Son ruins, but I didn’t really bother going. A lot of people also go cycling around the countryside (or go exploring with a motorbike).
I’ve missed Hoi An the last time when I was in Vietnam and although a very highly frequented place, it is really special and kind of deserves the crowds, which don’t really take away the ancient and laid back vibes of it.