Ho Chi Minh City
Conveniently located slap-bang in the middle of the country, Hoi An breaks up a journey between the North and South nicely, and as a result, few visitors come to Vietnam without passing through the town. But it is so much more than just a stopover or a tourist trap.
nce an important trading port, but no longer significant by the time of the American War, Hoi An was spared the wartime devastation that so many other towns suffered. As a result its historic buildings have been preserved in a way that is rarely seen elsewhere in Vietnam, and (aside from the trappings of tourism) it really does feel like a place where time has stood still.
Originally a town of silk merchants, it has now become the tailoring capital of Vietnam, and no visit would be complete without at least one trip to a tailor. Getting clothes made here is so addictive, though, that you may find yourself leaving with a whole new wardrobe.
In addition to the attractions of the town itself, Hoi An is blessed with a tropical, palm-lined beach about 5km out of town. Even without the attractions of Hoi An nearby, this lovely stretch of sand would still be a popular spot in its own right. With the beach so close at hand to tempt you away from the historic delights of the old town, it’s wise to allow as much time as you can for Hoi An. Almost every visitor ends up wanting to stay longer than planned.
Cua Dai Beach, Hoi An: Cua Dai Beach in Hoi An. About 4km from the Old Town. We rode our bicycles there, taking advantage of the good weather we had that day. Took us only about 15 minutes, and it was a pleasant ride to the beach.
Beach is not too bad; sand is pretty fine and soft, but water wasn’t crystal clear. Waves at this beach were pretty big, but the lifeguard was no where to be seen. Photo by yipinglim
If you run a mile from the sight of another tourist, Hoi An is not for you. If you want to see the ‘real Vietnam’, this is not the place to do it. Most of the businesses in the older part of town cater either to high-end overseas tourists or backpackers, and life in Hoi An generally has very little connection to the reality of modern-day Vietnam.
Quite simply, because it’s beautiful. Touristy – most definitely, but Hoi An is one of those rare places that excessive tourism hasn’t so far managed to spoil. An attractive, well-preserved old town with a great beach just down the road is always going to be a winning combination, and the tailors and silk merchants are also a big draw. But above all, there’s just something in the atmosphere – laid-back, tropical, nostalgic, artistic – that gets people hooked.
Reflections of Hoi An shophouses Photo by kirksiang
Late January to April/ May are best in terms of weather with comfortable temperatures (20s to low 30s) and low rainfall. May to August can be uncomfortably hot but should also be relatively dry, and the sea is calmer, so better for swimming, diving and snorkelling. The rainy season lasts from September to January, with October and November being the rainiest months.
It’s worth bearing in mind that a visit in the low season offers the benefits of lower hotel rates and fewer tourists, and even in the rainy season you can still get plenty of sunshine. Given the variety of things to do in Hoi An, even if the weather isn’t great, it need not spoil your stay. If it’s too hot, you can cool down in the sea or by the pool; if it’s raining cats and dog you can head for one of the historic houses or museums, or spend the day in tailors’ shops ordering up the perfect outfit.
Every month at the full moon, Hoi An is transformed for ‘Hoi An Legendary Night’. All but ‘primitive’ vehicles are banned from the streets of the old town, candles are lit in lanterns and incense is burned in all the shop fronts. There are artistic performances in the streets or on the riverside, and the river is lit by hundreds of floating paper lanterns.
Hoi An Waterfront at Night: In Hoi An, every full moon (14th of the Lunar month) it’s “Lantern Festival” aka “Legendary Night”. Electrical lighting in the historical center is reduced to the minimum and houses are all lit up with traditional silk lanterns. Streets are packed with locals as well as tourists who enjoy local food, dance performances and poetry recitals. Be sure not to join in early, as most Vietnamese will be in bed by 11 pm. Photo by zimmel
If your trip is around the time of the full moon, it’s definitely worth timing your stay in Hoi An to coincide with the ‘Legendary Night’. The actual date may not tie in exactly with full moon celebrations elsewhere so it’s worth checking the exact date before making your travel plans.
Considering it is only a small town, Hoi An boasts a huge choice of places to stay. There are new hotels and guesthouses opening all the time, so it’s worth shopping around for a good deal.
The Hoi Pho Hotel (627 Hai Ba Trung, 0510 916 382) is a good budget option, recommended for its friendly, family-run atmosphere.
If you want to stay on the beach, you have to go high end – the Hoi An Beach Resort is a relatively good value four-star option with some good deals available. It has a fantastic location right on the riverbank and just over the road from the beach, as well as two very tempting swimming pools overlooking the river.
Hoi An has a great selection of restaurants, and deciding where to eat can be tricky!
Bach Dang, the road that runs alongside the river in the old town, is a good location for a meal with a view. Most of the restaurants on this road offer low prices and similar menus consisting of Hoi An specialities and Vietnamese dishes. There is little to distinguish between most of them, but Hong Phuc (86 Bach Dang) has great river views from its upstairs balcony and Blue Dragon (46 Bach Dang) uses its profits to support a children’s charity.
Between Bach Dang and Nguyen Thai Hoc are two popular fusion restaurants, Mango Rooms and Cargo Club. Mango Rooms (111 Nguyen Thai Hoc) is the more upmarket of the two, with funky décor and innovative dishes which have gained an excellent reputation in Hoi An. Cargo Club (107-109 Nguyen Thai Hoc) offers high quality Vietnamese and international dishes at more reasonable prices, and has an attractive balcony with river views, plus an excellent bakery downstairs.
Hoi An is not exactly a party town, despite the large number of backpackers, but there’s no shortage of places to drink. Many of the bars and restaurants offer ridiculously cheap ‘happy hours’ which actually last a lot longer than an hour and feature some pretty feisty cocktails. If you’re after something lively, Before & Now (51 Le Loi) blasts out loud music until late, and Treat’s Café (158 Tran Phu) is the backpacker favourite, with various spin-offs around town.
- Visit a selection of the historic houses, museums, assembly halls and temples.
- Get a whole new wardrobe made up in one of the many tailors’ shops
- Rent a bike and cycle the 5km to Cua Dai beach.
- Stroll the riverfront in the evening by lantern-light, stopping for ‘happy hour’ drinks at a riverfront restaurant.
- Take a boat trip to Cham Island to snorkel, dive, explore the island or just relax on the beach.
- Take a cookery course
- Get up early and head out to the Cham ruins at My Son before the crowds arrive.
Hoi An is pretty safe, but watch your bags when walking around at night, especially in the market area.
Wandering around town with a backpack is likely to make you a target for the town’s many hotel touts. Hoi An has plenty of quality, good value accommodation so it’s worth looking around rather than going for the first place you see just because a tout drags you in.
The sea can be rough and has dangerous currents, so be careful when swimming here. Between November amd March it may not be safe to swim at all. Sections of Cua Dai beach have lifeguards – don’t swim if you see red flags.
The easiest way to get to Hoi An from Hanoi or HCMC is to fly to Danang airport. It’s about 30 minutes by taxi from the airport to Hoi An. Both Jetstar and Vietnam Airlines offer some great deals – if you book in time you can fly for little more than the cost of the sleeper train.
However, it’s still worth considering the train – either to Danang or incorporating a stop in Hue – as an option. Bearing in mind that the sleeper train saves you paying for a night’s accommodation, it still works out cheaper than flying, and will earn you eco brownie points.
From Hue, you have the choice of going all the way by bus, or getting a train to Danang and a bus, taxi or motorbike taxi for the remaining 35km to Hoi An. The section of the train journey around the Hai Van pass is reputed to be the most scenic in Vietnam – worth taking the train for, as you only see the inside of the Hai Van tunnel by road. The direct bus between Hue and Hoi An is a less scenic but easier option, as you don’t have to change and you can book an Open Tour bus ticket from most hotels and travel agents.