On the water in Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage site. By Aaron Joel Santos.
Hoi An’s allure is distilled in the narrow streets of the Ancient Town. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was a bustling commercial hub from the 15th to early 19th centuries, when merchants from China, Japan and later Europe settled in Hoi An, creating the unique architectural fusion that captures visitors today.
The layout of the town scape, with its open market, tight alleys and wooden footbridges, hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. For most of the day the Ancient Town is open only to cyclists and pedestrians, making it one of the best attractions in Vietnam to discover on foot. Bring your camera along as you tread the ornate Japanese Bridge, originally named the ‘Bridge of Friends from Faraway Places.’ For a deeper look into Hoi An’s timber-frame homes, step inside the Duc An and Tan Ky ancestral houses.
Dining in Hoi An is pure pleasure. Farms all around contribute just-picked vegetables, herbs and fruit, and fishing boats yield their catches to the markets daily, so you’ll have no shortage of memorable meals.
Three quintessential dishes in Hoi An are cau lau–a toothsome noodle dish–hoanh thanh crispy wontons, and the oh-so-succulent white rose shrimp dumplings. But it’s the humble banh mi that fosters culinary showdowns.
Hoi An is a magnet for foodies and cooks looking to learn the secrets of Vietnamese cuisine. Most cooking classes include a trip to the bountiful Hoi An Market, although some will ferry you as far as the vegetable farms and fishing villages. Have a morning to spare? Try your hand at the cooking schools of Red Bridge, Morning Glory or Secret Garden.
Sunrise in Hoi An is a prime time to grab your hat and hop on a bike. With any luck, you’ll find yourself in a sea of green, with water buffalo flicking their tails along the path and flocks of herons scattering on the horizon. The island of Cam Kim, a ferry hop away, is a lush, lovely landscape to explore on two wheels. Closer to town you’ll pass quiet riverside lanes, vegetable farms, and frond-fringed ponds. The waterfront tables at Cua Dai are also in easy striking distance.
An Bang Beach, just a 10-minute drive from the Ancient Town, lures travellers with the promise of seafood lunches, sandy stretches and cool waves. Soul Kitchen is a favourite chill-out spot to bring your books, beach blankets and bikinis. For a full day of sun and surf, board the ferry to the Cham Islands, where you’ll have pristine shores and a handful of diving spots all to yourself.
Hoi An may charm your pants off, but it’ll also sew you a new pair. The streets are overflowing with tailors and shoemakers eager to stitch you an outfit in 24 hours. In the ready-to-wear category, check out the racks of cotton, linen and silk threads at upscale boutiques such as Papillon Noir and Metiseko. Jewelry and leather goods are also high on the list of temptations for shoppers. Be sure to brush up your bargaining skills before diving in.
An insightful, half-day diversion awaits 40 kilometres away at the My Son Sanctuary, a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site. Nestled in a valley near a shaded stream, the temples were built by the Cham people, who established a thriving spice trade long ago in Central Vietnam. The surviving structures, which bear the scars of time and war, date from the 7th to the 13th century.
Get in line for your banh mi fix first thing, then poke around the stalls of the wet market to eye the day’s best produce. Cycle through the rice paddies to An Bang Beach for a seafood lunch and dip in the ocean. When the air cools, walk the streets of the Ancient Town, stopping to check out any museums that catch your fancy. Have a sumptuous Vietnamese dinner, and stroll back to your hotel in the glow of Hoi An’s colourful lanterns.
On your second morning in Hoi An, sign up for one of the excellent cooking classes in town. Chances are lunch is included, but you can always grab a homemade ice-cream from Cargo Club if you need to cool off after. In the afternoon, divert yourself to the historical ruins at My Son. When you get back, sip sundowners with a view of the river, do a spot of shopping, then treat yourself to a well-deserved foot massage.
Like the rest of Central Vietnam, Hoi An weather can be unpredictable. Expect rainy days and several storms from September to January. February to May are the best months to visit, but you can also see Hoi An from June to August, if you don’t mind the intense heat.
The easiest way to access Hoi An is to fly into the international airport in Danang, a 30-minute drive from the Old Town. There are domestic flights from Vietnam’s major cities to Danang, as well as direct flights from Bangkok, Siem Reap, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong. Hoi An can also be reached by bus from the North or South of Vietnam.
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