Hoi An was easily my favorite stop in Vietnam. It was a colonial trading post, and has a completely distinct feel from any other city in Vietnam. One, the Old Town architecture preserves the history of this port city and adds to its charm. Two, foreign influences laid the foundation of international sophistication since Hoi An was a stronghold for the Cham people in the spice trade centuries ago.
I only spent a very short day here while traveling through Vietnam, but that was more than enough time to enchant me and make me want to plan my trip back to this coastal town.
It’s a magical city that has the ability to transport you back into yesteryear while still forging its path into the modern world. There’s cyclo drivers who wind their way down cobblestone paths. There’s burnt facades of buildings turned into internet cafes and bistros. The closest thing I could compare it to is if there were a real world Pirates of the Caribbean but in Southeast Asia. The entire city is a world UNESCO heritage site.
You could spend your whole visit in the quaint old quarter, but for a different kind of adventure, take a speedboat to the Cham Islands. Cu Lao Cham, as they are known in Vietnamese, are about 9 miles from Cu Dai Beach in Quang Nam province.
One of Vietnam’s most famous shipwrecks happened off the coast of Hoi An, and the ceramics recovered from the sea are highly prized and sought after. Not something you should think about before getting into one of their little speedboat ferries, but I was definitely thinking about it. I’m not a big fan of boats and I’m not going to lie, I did feel seasick even for the short ride, but it’s worth it once you get to the island.
People have been inhabiting these islands for thousands of years. Cham people were of Australo-Malay-Polynesian ancestry who ruled over this area and its trade for centuries before being overtaken by the Vietnamese. These little islands were used to aid in transport to the mainland, and were heavy on the fishing circuit. There are temples and museums, but mostly the islands survive on tourists who come for the beaches and snorkeling and parasailing.
It is one of life’s great pleasures to enjoy a white sand beach in Vietnam, a country that is half bordered by the ocean. It’s a nice break from the motorbike filled major cities.
If you’re game (or have packed Cipro), have a meal at a communal style restaurant on the beach. The seafood is literally ocean to table. My American stomach didn’t even get sick…from this part of the trip anyway.
Leave the rolling hills of these isles for the mainland, but not before collecting some memories of this little hidden paradise. Old Town Hoi An is probably one of my favorite places I’ve ever been, and that’s saying something.
These buildings lining the pedestrian mall have seen it all. Fires, storms, probably some pirates, pillaging and debauchery. Every smudge and scar gives this city character.
There are street vendors everywhere. Selling all sorts of fruits, pastries, buns, fish. It’s the best. We need more vendors like this in US cities. It’s like Uber Eats but better.
Beyond that, there’s vendors cooking in the streets. Duck embryos. Banh mi. Meat skewers. If you’ve ever had Vietnamese grilled meats, you’ll know why it was hard to resist.
The Vietnamese were colonized by the French once, and in many ways their influence is still prevalent. Lots of outdoor cafes and boulangeries, teeming with tourists looking for a respite. Many of the cafes are multilevel and have balconies overlooking the town.
I recommend getting a cafe sua da (Vietnamese iced coffee) at Cargo Club or Cocobox. The city used to be known as Faifo in Europe, so you’ll see some references to this past name in restaurants and business names.
The Thu Bon River runs through the Old Town, and there are water taxis and gondola like boats skimming tourists over the water.
The boats are painted with whimsical little faces on them, like fish outta water.
One of the most popular attractions in the city is the Japanese Bridge. This covered bridge dates back to the late 16th century when the Japanese citizens of this city built it to connect themselves to the Chinese quarter. It’s one of the icons of this city.
Along the river exists a HUGE marketplace, which is very common in any Asian city. Open air markets are my favorite site in any destination, exciting, and best of all free.
There are so many colors and odors, it’s a kaleidoscope of local trade and commerce.
This is the true cross section of people: local denizens, rich and poor, tourists, young and old, everyone converges here.
The smells are tantalizing. Seriously hard to not indulge. My mind’s telling me no…
Along the river and on their bridges, you’ll see vendors selling toys and souvenirs. Custom suits are hugely popular amongst tourists, you can get them made in days. They’ll ship them back to wherever you’re from or to your next destination. Ya Ly is probably the most famous in town.
Hoi An is a popular destination for families from all over the country for its bustling night markets and fun for all attractions. The city also has floral blooms and shady trees all over making it feel like a country hamlet than a seaport.
While in Hoi An, there’s some regional dishes that you have to try. Cao lau is rich noodles topped with something like five spice rubbed pork, pork rinds and greens. It is a uniquely Hoi An dish, with the rice noodles made with local ash and only boiled in Cham well water.
Mi Quang is another must try, a turmeric dyed noodle with shrimp, fishcake, pork and sesame crackers. It’s the best (but it tastes better in the US, sorry being blasphemous).
Morning Glory, Blue Dragon they’ve all got about the same menu. You have to eat this on the second floor of a Hoi An eatery, like this one at Banana Leaf.
The city comes alive at night, illuminated by the soft glow of lanterns roping from balcony to balcony. People spill into the streets, enjoying plays and traditional dance.
Vendors continue to hawk their wares in night markets. Buy some delicate paper crafts, the pop up tissue paper cards are especially intricate. They are really portable, cheap souvenirs.
Hoi An is known for their spectacular paper and silk lanterns. Not only are they eye catching, but they’re also really easy to take home.
Especially fanciful, paper lanterns with candles are sold on the street to be floated down the river. Children offer trays of these multi-colored, flickering wishes. Give in, they’re a few dollars apiece. Once you lower them down with a long bamboo pole, follow them as they get carried away by the lull of the river. These little lights twinkle as they make their way downstream, carrying a wash of dreams and hopes with them as far as the eye can see. It’s spellbinding.
This city is magic, and its romanticism should be experienced in person. Many places will delight you, but few will leave you with an indelible, special experience like this city will.
Has anyone traveled to Hoi An? Share your thoughts and tips with us in the comments!