Growing up, I remember seeing the killed and missing in action counts on the evening news -- back in the day when changing the channel meant getting up to turn the knob. This is what I knew of Vietnam and the war before I visited the country.
In Vietnam, the war is called the American War. Touring the Mekong Delta and the Cu Chi Tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) offers insight into the war and the Vietnamese perspective. By contrast, Hoi An seems far removed from this period of time. The coastal city is steeped in centuries-old history, culture, religion, and history.
Hoi An lies 480 miles south of Hanoi and 560 miles north of Ho Chi Minh City. Hoi An doesn’t have an airport, but 1.5 hour-flights from Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City depart regularly for Da Nang, just 30 kilometers (just under 20 miles) away. Trains to Da Nang from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City take 15-plus hours. From Da Nang, you can easily hail a taxi to Hoi An. Driving from either city to Hoi An takes 17 hours. Considering the travel time and inexpensive airfares (less than $90 USD), flying is the best option.
Things To Do In Hoi An
Attend The Lantern Festival
It’s worth planning your entire Vietnam trip around the lantern or full moon festival in Hoi An. The biggest full moon festival of the year happens on the lunar New Year, but each month Hoi An locals celebrate the eve of the full moon with a lantern festival. Old Town’s street lights are extinguished and the soft glow from silk lanterns strung across storefronts and over cobblestone streets lights the way.
Old Town is situated on the Thu Bon River and is the center of the lantern festival. Locals and visitors board wooden boats to set red and gold paper boats with a single candle afloat in honor of relatives who have passed away and for good luck and prosperity. You’ll see shrines with food, gold chrysanthemums, and fake money set up for ancestors throughout Old Town, too.
Pro Tip: Children sell the paper boats for about $1 USD. The rowboats are not ADA-compliant, but the view is just as nice from the wheelchair-accessible promenade. Festivities start at dusk.
Explore Old Town
Hoi An’s Old Town, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has 21 historical places to visit, all set along cobblestone streets. The gold stucco storefronts, with the merchants’ homes in the rear, date back to the 1400s when Hoi An was an active trading center between Europe and Asia. Some of the well-preserved buildings have remained in the same families for generations and are open for tours. Inside you’ll see period furnishings and housewares, particularly ceramics that were traded here.
Old Town’s assembly halls with blue or green stucco facades are decorated with colorful mosaics, statues, and wood carvings. Originally used for both business and religion, the halls continue to serve as religious temples.
Old Town’s much-photographed Japanese covered footbridge was built in the 1590s. “Bridge for passengers from afar” is written in Chinese characters above the entrance. Inside the bridge, a small niche serves as a temple to Tran Vo Bac De, the Taoist god of weather.
In addition to historic sites, Old Town is filled with boutiques, coffee shops, restaurants, and tailors who can sew clothes for you in two to three days.
Pro Tip: Purchase entrance tickets (approximately $5 USD) for Old Town’s attractions at the kiosk at one of the main entrances. The ticket can be used to see a traditional performance at an assembly hall plus the inside of five of the 21 historic sites that are marked on the map you receive when you buy your ticket. To see more than five sites, simply buy another ticket.
Visit The Precious Heritage Museum
This museum displays iconic photographs of Vietnamese people taken by Rehahn. This French photographer has taken portraits of the many ethnic groups in Vietnam. The museum’s collection includes 100 portraits and more than 60 different styles of dress found around the country.
Pro Tip: Allow 30 minutes to an hour for your visit. The museum is located in Old Town.
Tour My Son Sanctuary
My Son Sanctuary, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located 40 kilometers (25 miles) southwest of Hoi An -- about an hour’s cab ride (approximately $20 USD) away. A visit begins at the museum that covers the history of My Son’s inhabitants, the Cham people. The Cham people’s commercial center was Hoi An, but My Son was their spiritual center from the 4th to the 13th centuries.
A tram takes visitors from the museum to a looped, accessible trail that winds through the ruins. Many were Hindu temples made with reddish-brown bricks -- all without mortar. Seventy buildings, some intact and some partially in ruins, remain.
If you get hungry during your visit, the restaurant near the taxi stand serves delicious pho -- a noodle soup dish. We didn’t see a menu. It was an eat the special-of-the-day kind of place -- all for the princely sum of $3 USD, including a soda.
Pro Tip: The entrance ticket costs about $6.50 USD. Although it is hotter in the afternoon, it is relatively empty then since the large tour groups visit in the morning. Carry water with you.
Join A Photo Tour
If Rehahn’s photographs have inspired you, you can join Hoi An 360 for a photography tour of either Old Town or the surrounding countryside. Photographer Alden Anderson and his colleague Trinh Nguyen offer instruction and an introduction to local people on their tours.
Learn To Cook Local Cuisine
To learn how to prepare the food you’ve tasted during your visit to Hoi An, take a cooking class at Red Bridge Cooking School. The class begins with a tour of Old Town’s food market that sells every imaginable edible thing and continues with a cruise upriver to the school.
Most of the class is hands-on with the bonus of a sous chef doing most of the cutting and chopping. You’ll sample food along the way and enjoy a scrumptious full meal at the end of class. Vegetarian meals are available.
Best Restaurants In Hoi An
Is there a bad place to eat in Hoi An? In a word, no. Fresh vegetables and caught-that-day fish and seafood are the norm. Here are a few places to try.
Miss Ly Cafe
Located in Old Town, Miss Ly Cafe is a popular restaurant for good reason, serving traditional Vietnamese food. Expect to wait for a table.
Nhan’s Kitchen consistently serves great food, offering both traditional Vietnamese food, including red snapper cooked in banana leaves and spring rolls, and pizza.
This restaurant is located in La Siesta Resort and Spa. Enjoy local and regional Vietnamese food, including daily specials.
Hai Cafe’s extensive menu has Vietnamese favorites along with burgers and barbecue. Dining in the restaurant’s courtyard is particularly enjoyable.
If you’re in the mood for fine Eurasian food, Aubergine49 is the place to have dinner. Expect skillfully prepared and beautifully presented dishes. Reservations are recommended.
Best Hotels In Hoi An
Vinh Hung 1 Heritage Hotel
For movie enthusiasts, this hotel served as Michael Caine’s dressing room during the filming of The Quiet American. For me, though, the true value was staying in a 200-year-old merchant’s house furnished with priceless antiques in Old Town. The hotel serves a robust breakfast buffet and a traditional Vietnamese dinner.
Little Riverside Hoi An
Also located in Old Town, Little Riverside Hotel and Spa sits on the Thu Bon River where you can watch the colorful fishing boats come and go, lounge by the pool, ride a complimentary bicycle around Old Town, or take a shuttle to their An Bang Beach property.
La Siesta Resort And Spa
Located less than a mile from Old Town, the upscale La Siesta Resort and Spa offers beautifully-appointed, squeaky clean rooms, both saltwater and freshwater pools, and use of their beachfront property.
Beachside Boutique Resort Hoi An
If you’re looking to stay steps away from a private, uncrowded beach, Beachside Boutique Resort Hoi An is the place. It is several miles from Old Town and has a nice pool, fun decor, and friendly staff.
If picking up a new language isn’t your strong suit (it definitely isn’t mine), download Google Translate. Google Translate can be used offline if you’ve downloaded the needed language beforehand. It comes in handy outside of the tourist areas. Hoi An is inexpensive and U.S. dollars are widely accepted.