Traditionally a trading epicenter and safe haven for Chinese immigrants, the Vietnamese coastal town Hoi An has developed itself into one of the most popular touristic places in the country. This rough guide will cover some of the key things to do in Hoi An.
Do you need a ticket for the Old Town?
It’s time to hit the enchanting alleyways and packed streets of Hoi An. Nevertheless, before I paid a visit to the elegant inner city, I stumbled upon some confusing information on the internet platforms and in travel agency offices. There seemed much discussion about whether to purchase an entrance ticket to the old town of Hoi An or not.
The staff in the yellow checkpoint houses don’t ask every visitor to show their entrance ticket, but I heard that while walking in the old part of Hoi An you can expect to be checked at random. The fee is used to keep this UNESCO-listed city in shape. Here’s the truth: technically you don’t need to pay the entrance fee just to walk around the city. But if you are planning to see some of the designated monuments, there’s no reason not to head for the small yellow ticket booths and get your 120.000 dong coupons.
A first stroll through the energetic town is a feast for the senses. The lanterns, plastered French colonial houses and the slowly paddling vendors on the peaceful Thu Bon River give Hoi An a historical kind of vibe. Meanwhile, the honking motorbikes, yelling market salesmen and gift shops with postcards and fridge magnets catapult you back in modern-day Vietnam with a snap of the fingers.
The entrance voucher – 5 entrance coupons are included – comes with a map on which you navigate through the madness and pick your temples, museums and historical monuments of choice.
Ba Mu Temple
One of the landmarks that immediately catches my eye is the Ba Mu Temple, a relic from 1626. In contrast to the French architecture you find in Hoi An, Ba Mu symbolizes the Chinese influences in feudal Vietnam before the time when the baguette and pate made their appearance. The peaceful pond, the garden and the richly decorated entrance gates are photo-worthy, and many lovebirds get their romantical footage done here. This temple complex is not part of the paid monuments so you can have a look at the beautiful details and worship area without paying a penny.
Water plays a massive role in the history of Hoi An. The trading culture flourished through boats and bridges. The most iconic bridge in town is the Japanese Bridge, which dates back to the 18th century. Crossing the Japanese Bridge costs you one of the five coupons, and the staff here actually checks individual tourists. There are a small temple and statues of dogs and monkeys that symbolize the Chinese years in which the construction started and finished. Except for that the bridge is very crowded, and it’s hard to actually use it for its original purpose; to walk to the other side.
To be honest, the bridge is way prettier from the outside. Because it’s totally covered by a roof and there’s no artificial light, you don’t even see the wood carvings when you’re walking on the bridge. From the riverside the views are way better and, importantly, there’s also a walking bridge where you can pass to the other side of the Old Town for free.
Among the many sightseeing places you can visit in the center are several old houses. Some are well-maintained, like the Old House of Phùng Hưng right next to the Japanese Bridge. This dark-wooden establishment stands here for almost 250 years, and it used to be a trading house for valuable goods such as silk. The second floor is a workshop for knitters where you can watch the ladies make their embroideries and buy their creations as a souvenir. The furnishing, vases and other artsy details in the interior are gorgeous, and therefore I would recommend picking at least this house on your quest to do a proper sightseeing tour.
I also enjoyed a peek into the Duc An House, located in the same street as the Old House of Phùng Hưng. The current owner is a descendant of those who built the house, and he’s a living guidebook to the house’s 160-year old history. The Chinese influence on the ancient Vietnamese architecture is evident, and this house reminded me of the Chinese-Malay heritage houses in Malacca. The wooden beams breathe history, and the carved patterns on the walls almost make this house instead look like an artist’s workshop. An easy-to-overlook detail in the yard is a creatively decorated miniature Japanese garden, including tiny temples and goldfishes.
Communal houses and assembly halls
Not tired of cultural impressions? On the long list of sights in Hoi An two communal houses make their appearance. In past times the people of Hoi An used several communal spaces for business meetings and worship. I found out that especially the Cam Pho Temple is relatively peaceful, probably because it’s on the very edge of the Old Town. The vibe in this serene place is pure, with splendid decorations, artworks and original altars.
Also, I felt like this sight was worth handing over one coupon because unlike at many other locations in town I didn’t feel pointy camera lenses or elbows in my back.
The Minh Huong Communal House lies just outside the packed core of the Old Town as well, but on the opposite side. This complex was mainly used as a place of worship for Chinese who fled the ruling during the Qing Dynasty, to a safer Vietnam that welcomed the political refugees. The entrance gate, the dark wooden interior, and the altars are very picturesque so don’t leave your camera at home. Both communal houses are on the list of sights so you can give one of your coupons to enter these complexes.
A lot of places to socialize were built in the past in Hoi An, and some of the prettiest are the Chinese Assembly Halls. Usually, they are decorated with a pretty front gate, a central seating hall, lush gardens and an altar to honour the ancestors. Especially the Cantonese Assembly Hall – built in 1786 – with its authentic lanterns and beautifully painted beams is a magnificent piece of Chinese-Vietnamese architecture, although this doesn’t remain unnoticed to the public. Go early in the morning, when the tour groups and buses haven’t arrived yet, and the assembly halls are still peaceful. Other historic places, like the All Chinese Assembly Hall and the Hai Nam Assembly Hall, are less beautiful and more modern.
The Central Market
Often markets offer a look into the soul of a city or community, and Hoi An is no exception. The Central Market in the Old Town has so many things for sale, it almost becomes a day trip on itself to explore this area right next to the riverside. As I navigate through a maze of motorbikes and vendors carrying around baskets, the smells of durian and coriander fight for victory. It’s a pleasant place to stroll around, get some freshly squeezed juices or a bowl of hearty noodle soup.
This is also an excellent place to sample a banana pancake, a typical Vietnamese street food. Some salesmen and -women add peanut butter or chocolate paste, making this little sweet suckers dangerously addictive. Even if you’re not buying anything from the market, it’s a very genuine and exciting experience for the busy trading life in Hoi An is happening right in front of you
Hoi An Museum
With the amount of history running through Hoi An’s veins, the Hoi An Museum is a good source of background information. The exhibitions take you on a journey from 2000 years ago to the American War in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Pottery, ceramics and photos of the war all show the glory days and times of trouble in this coastal town. If you want to be adequately informed, I would suggest to get yourself an audio guide for 40.000 dong.
The Old Town is beloved, well-photographed and probably overrun at night. For those reasons I’m always aiming to escape the buzzing business for a while in any city I visit. Hoi An offers some great escapes just outside its borders. A few cycle paddles away you’ll be navigating over narrow concrete roads surrounded by hardworking buffalo, vast rice paddies and songbirds lyrics.
Steer your motorbike or bicycle a couple of kilometers east for a visit to Tra Que, or the so-called ‘Vegetable Village’. All the vegetables served in the restaurants in Hoi An are grown and harvested in this maze of green shades. It truly is a pretty sight, and it’s rather interesting to get to know the typical Vietnamese green goodies as well. You can visit Tra Que during a guided tour, but it’s definitely worth taking your time and explore the paddies all by yourself. You can even offer a helping hand to one of the farmers with their conical hats and rattling bicycles.
Once you have left laid back Tra Que – most likely with a smile on your face and a bundle of herbs in your basket – it’s easy to paddle more to get ocean views at Cua Dai Beach. This is one of the most popular beaches in the area, but I think it is wise to spend more beach time elsewhere in Vietnam. Sandbags to prevent erosion and waste mostly have taken over this once award-winning strip of sand. If you’re an oddly early bird, this beach still is the best place in Hoi An and surrounding for an astonishing sunrise though.
I went to An Bang Beach as well, which lies more to the north. An Bang is a quite calm and pretty beach, but unfortunately, the lounge chairs and umbrellas are planted on it as far as the eye can see. Again, my advice is to hang out on beaches somewhere else. Hoi An is all about its history and simple charm, not about unspoiled seashores.
What to eat in Hoi An
Before you grab a recognized travel guide or open five internet tabs with ‘the best restaurants in Hoi An’, do note that in Vietnam 90% of the locals eat their meals at visually unassuming stalls, while seated on tiny plastic chairs. Hoi An is definitely no exception.
Look for colorful tables and see where the residents gather for Vietnamese staples. Hoi An has a couple of its own, and you might want to look for a sign that says ‘cao lau’. This noodle dish has very thick rice noodles and just a little bit of pork bone broth, unlike the more soupy dishes you often see in this country. Therefore the flavor of the other ingredients themselves, like barbecued pork and green vegetables, take the spotlights.
Mì Quảng isn’t exclusively available in Hoi An, but it originates from the province Hoi An is part of. This fare also has noodles and fresh vegetables but is more complicated than cao lau. Mì Quảng is available with pork, chicken, beef, fish, and shrimp. The broth is rich with the meat stock, fish sauce, onion, pepper and garlic. Even though the ingredients are served in a small amount of soup, you can still distinguish the yellow-orange color from the turmeric. Chilis and lemon parts on the side can be added for even more explosive flavor components.
Both of the dishes can be found in many roadside stalls across town, but I found the most affordable bowls in the street Thai Phien, just north of the Old Town. For only 15.000 dong per bowl you get to experience the ultimate flavors of Hoi An.