We thought that perhaps, the further north we travelled in Vietnam, the cooler it might become. Boy, were we wrong! Hoi An was just as hot and humid as Ho Chi Minh City, which meant sightseeing in the middle of the day was out of the question.
Hoi An’s historical centre, aka Ancient Town or Old Town, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. It’s a well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries. There are plenty of historical and cultural sites to visit, and the food in town is delicious!
Here’s a list of everything we got up to during our two days in Hoi An:
1. Discovering the streets: I always think that the best way to discover a new place, especially a small town, is to wander through the streets. Hoi An’s Ancient Town is the perfect place to lose yourself. Stroll down one of the many alleyways and you’ll find cafés, tailors and artefact shops along the way.
The further away from the canal you roam, the further away you get from the tourist traps and Western restaurants. The tranquillity of local life takes over, and street vendors hassling you with their tours and produce become fewer and fewer. This is how we came across An Café – tucked away in the back streets, this café offers home-cooked traditional meals and cooking classes. The food was so delicious we went back there again to eat the following day.
The bridges over the canal light up at night and it’s a pretty sight to see, along with the colourful, bright lanterns that decorate the surrounding streets. You’re doing well if you can snap a picture without someone’s head in the way. We definitely weren’t the only ones hiding during the middle of day – the streets by the canal at night were packed!
2. The historical attractions: we also opted out of crossing the famous Japanese Covered Bridge, as we could easily see the 1590 structure from the outside and there were just too many people crowding the interior. Instead, we chose to visit the following:
- Minh Huong Communal House: local Minh Huong Chinese come here to worship their heroic ancestors. The Minh Huong Chinese migrated out of China during the 17th century as they were not permitted to practise their religion by the then predominant Qing Chinese (who had replaced the Ming dynasty). Trying their luck elsewhere, they eventually settled in Hoi An.
- Trăn Family Home and Chapel: was also built for worshipping ancestors. It dates back to 1802 and its architecture clearly shows Chinese, Japanese and local influences (like many of the buildings in Hoi An, thanks to the ancient visitors to port who brought with them their architectural heritage). We were shown around by a young lady who was a seventh generation Trăn.
- Old House of Tán Ky: was built 200 years ago and has also been preserved through seven generations. Although built by an ethnic Vietnamese family, the house displays Hoi An’s characteristic mix of architecture. A courtyard in the centre of the house allows for natural light and the grapevines decorating the wooden balcony gives the place a European touch. The house is full of memories, symbolism and ancient functions. For example, the two pulleys attached to a beam in the roof allowed the residents to hoist their furniture up to the top floors during floods.
- Hái Nam Assembly Hall: was built in 1875. It commemorates the killing of one hundred Chinese traders – killed on the false pretext that they were pirates. Chinese merchants subsequently used the building to undertake their business affairs.
- A traditional art performance: held at Hoi An’s Traditional Art Performance House. We were treated to a performance combining song, dance and instrumentation. They also had a Vietnamese version of a lucky door prize. Just as well we didn’t win, as we wouldn’t have had room in our backpacks to carry the prize – a lantern.
3. Reaching Out Teahouse: is run by speech and hearing impaired servers. We sat at the front of the handsomely decorated house and looked out of the glassless, wooden window frame at the people passing by. The peaceful environment was the perfect place to hide away from the sun. We ordered a variety of local, aromatic teas using the wooden blocks of phrases on the table. My tasting set had oolong, jasmine and red lantern tea (made from local herbs). Reaching Out also has an arts and craft shop a couple of streets away. Here, you can see the crafts and jewellery being made by the handicapped staff.
4. Hoi An Cloth Market: everywhere I looked, I saw beautiful Vietnamese silk clothing. So when we came across Hoi An Cloth Market, I allowed myself to be convinced to have a garment tailored for me. The women at the Thuân (N#5) market stall measured me up and I chose a navy blue silk fabric from the pile. It was midday. I paid a deposit and left. We returned at 5pm and the garment was ready for me to try on in their makeshift change room. After a few on-the-spot adjustments, it was ready for me to take away. I had to go to the ATM to pay for the total amount in cash. It was an exciting experience and had I have stayed in town for longer, I may have commissioned more.
5. Cua Dai beach: is about 3kms in length, with white sand and small waves. After cycling back from town, we left our bicycles at our guesthouse and walked the three minutes to Cua Dai beach. The sand was hot under our feet. We didn’t have any valuables with us, so it was easy for we three to run into the water to cool off. The water was warm (it had been 34°C with 65% humidity that day). We swam away from the crowds and turned a blind eye to any rubbish.
We watched as two men waded into the water to collect their fishing net. When darkness fell, we could see the lights of fishing boats further out to sea as well as the lights of Da Nang city along the coastline. An occasional flash of lightning struck in the distance but no rain ever came.
6. Thanh Ha Pottery Village: when a town is small, it’s easy to want to see and do everything on offer. We cycled about 3kms west of Hoi An’s Ancient Town to Thanh Ha Pottery Village – a gentrified tourist attraction that houses few authentic family pottery businesses. When we arrived, a line of tall coaches with air conditioning units funnelling out hot air blocked the road. We skirted around them to the ticket booth and paid the VND 25,000 entrance fee.
We cycled around the village, taking photos here and there, and collected our free clay whistle (which was included in the entrance ticket). We saw local woman making clay bowls and piggy banks with coin slots in their derrière. Rows upon rows of pottery were drying in the sun. Rushing back through the traffic, we arrived in time to collect my tailored garment from the Cloth Market.
7. Water Coconut Village: we set out before breakfast and cycled through the rice fields towards Water Coconut Village. We got lost on the way. A family of four on a motorcycle drew up alongside us and asked, in English, if we needed help. They were heading in the same direction and urged us to follow them. The lanes became narrower as we zigzagged our way towards the water coconut forest. The family took us to their house and showed us their circular bamboo basket boats. “You can hire one for 30 minutes,” said the mother. We politely declined. It was still early and the waterways were quiet, but already the sun was heating up and our bellies were screaming for food. Almost immediately, we began the one-hour cycle back to our guesthouse. Through the zigzagging narrow lanes and onto the raised paths through the rice fields we went. “Sin Chao,” said several farmers as they greeted us along the way. We were held up at one point as hundreds of ducks streamed from a truck and into a field. It was a stinky spectacle to watch. When we finally reached our guesthouse, we ate breakfast and then went for a swim at the beach to cool down before check out.
Entrance tickets: you will need to buy an entrance ticket before entering any of Hoi An’s historical attractions. We purchased ours at one of the many entrances to the Ancient Town. It cost VND 120,000, giving us access to 5 out of the 21 “relics”, and was valid for 24 hours. The tickets have special coupons, which staff cut off as you enter each site. Make sure you get a map of Ancient Town from the ticket office and use it to select which “relics” to visit.
Note: you can visit more than 5 “relics” but you will need to pay extra for each site. Proceeds from the tickets go towards restoring the town. It’s also worth keeping your ticket in case you’re asked to present it to a ticket controller when wandering around the historical centre. Mind you, we walked around on our first day without a ticket. It was late afternoon and we weren’t visiting any of the sites, so perhaps this is why we didn’t have any problems.
You will also need to pay to enter the various “Traditional Occupational Villages”. We paid a VND 25,000 entrance fee to visit Pottery Village. You can find out more here.
Transport: our guesthouse was located just outside Hoi An and about three minutes walk from the Cua Dai beach. This meant we, either, arranged for a private taxi through our accommodation, ordered a Grab taxi or cycled into town to visit the sites. Bicycles were included in our accommodation fee and were by far the best way to see the countryside. During our first trip into town, we stopped every five minutes to take photos!
Vehicles are not allowed in the historical centre, so a taxi can only take you to the entrance and then you will have to walk. There are also bicycle-parking stations, which we found to be super handy and safe. It cost about 50 cents for the attendant to watch over the bicycles while we walked around the town.
Note: the Grab taxi app worked well when we were ordering a taxi from Hoi An, but there were never any cars close by when we wanted to order a taxi in the opposite direction (i.e. from the beach to Hoi An). If you are staying near the beach, your guesthouse should be able to organise a taxi for you (although it will be dearer than the Grab taxi). If you’re only going to the beach on the day, either cycle or pre-arrange for a taxi to come back to collect you.
Accommodation: we stayed at Cashew Tree, which we booked via AirBnB. Our bungalow had two double beds, air conditioning, a fridge, a TV and a hot shower. Our host, Quy brought us breakfast (Vietnamese coffee, fresh juice and omelette) out on the patio each day at 8am. She was always there to give us a cheery welcome after each expedition, to wash the sand off our feet and to give us advice on what to see.
Photo: street vendors selling bananas just outside the Cloth Market in Hoi An, Vietnam.