Hoi An is an ancient trading city, off the South China Sea in Central Vietnam. Once known as a quiet retreat for backpackers hoping to spend a few mellow days off the beaten path, it’s now a more mainstream tourism destination. But compared to the bustling metropolises of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, it’s still pretty relaxed.
With a permanent population of 120,000, the city is quite small and much of the tourism is concentrated within a few hundred yards of the Ancient Town. The Ancient Town was made a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999. Hoi An is accessible by car, bus, air and bicycle. The nearest major airport to Hoi An is Danang, about an hour’s drive North.
In spite of the beauty of the city, it’s difficult to spend more than a day in Hoi An without observing the continued effects of the Vietnam War in the community. Millions of gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, including on Hoi An and the surrounding area 50 years ago, poisoning water and farmland.
Children continue to be born with disabilities than can be traced back to dioxins used in the war. Not-for-profit organizations like the Lifestart Foundation provide training, health care and employment for people with disabilities in Vietnam. You can support their work by checking out their workshop and buying hand made souvenirs. There are several places in Vietnam that are similarly mission-driven, like Streets Restaurant and White Lotus Restaurant. Patronizing these places is one small way to improve opportunities for people in Hoi An.
The most harrowing thing about arriving in Hoi An (or anywhere in Vietnam for that matter) is crossing the street. Motorbikes, cars and bicycles hurl past one another with no traffic signals and painted lines in the street are merely suggestive. A first-time pedestrian in Vietnam feels transported to the ‘80s video game, Frogger. Walking is by far the easiest way to get around the central part of the city, followed by bicycle and taxis are readily available for longer distances.
Here’s how to survive your first (and each subsequent) street crossing:
The trick is to find something resembling a small break in the oncoming traffic and walk purposefully, but not too quickly, through the gaps, always giving way to cars (they are not going to stop for you).
Darting, sprinting, or quickly changing direction is a big mistake. The motorbikes and bicycles need to be able to anticipate where you’re going and they’ll go around you. After few of successful crossings, it’s easy peasy.
After spending a few days here, I noticed a Kinetic sophistication to the chaos of movement in Vietnam.
The bicycles and motorbikes travel on the far right, the cars to their left, and the pedestrians wherever they can stay out of the way of the street food vendors (often occupying what little sidewalk space exists). The noise of the traffic is like a cacophony of staccato honking (like “heads up, I’m on your left”), with the occasional prolonged horns of the drivers who are simply not in the mood for traffic.
Dating back to the 1st century A.D., Hoi An was once known as Lam Ap Pho (Champa City). The hub for the active spice trade between the 7th and 10th centuries, Hoi An later became the most popular trading port in SE Asia between the late 1500’s-1700’s. The Japanese Covered Bridge was built in the 1590’s to join to Japanese and Chinese sections of the city. Today, only by crossing the Japanese Covered Bridge can you access an otherwise hidden car-free shopping street.
To access Ancient Town, you need to buy a ticket from one of the gates near the bridge. There is some confusion about whether you only need to buy a ticket to access the heritage sights or whether you need one to walk through Ancient town to enjoy the restaurants and shopping. After some investigating, we learned you should buy a ticket (120,000 VND or about $5.50 USD) once on your trip early on and carry it with you. There were government officers stationed at the entrances, but no one checked our tickets. Each ticket allows access to up to 5 (of almost 40) heritage sites, including museums, old houses, and assembly halls.
Note that with the old houses, the second part of the tour is a gift shop inside the house. Be prepared for the hard sell. The proceeds from the tickets contribute to the maintenance of the Ancient Town, so pony up, folks. It’s only $5.
Ancient town is at its best at sunrise and in the evening. At sunrise, the streets are practically deserted save the occasional local pushing a cart or carrying her prepared dishes on her shoulders to market.
The Central Market is the primary place for buying produce, fish and meat, with souvenir stalls across the single-lane road. Food commerce exists in three easy steps. About 6 am, the motorbikes arrive from the surrounding farms laden with fresh produce. Older women spread out the produce on the street or in their market stall and then sell to local restaurants and other visitors. In our week in Hoi An, we didn’t see a single refrigerated truck making a delivery anywhere.
In the evenings, the streets of ancient town are alight with lanterns. Many shops stay open late and a few of the lanes are open to only pedestrians and bicycles, reducing the ‘Frogger factor’ after a filling dinner. The city becomes a completely different place once the sun goes down.
Lantern Festival (Full Moon Festival)
Once a month on the night of the full moon, Hoi An Ancient Town lights up for the Lantern Festival. Lanterns, candlelight, and the occasional street-side barrel fire are the only sources of light. If you are dining at a restaurant along the river, you’ll dine by candlelight.
It is a night for honoring ancestors, so outside homes and businesses are altars decorated with cloths and topped with offerings of fruits and flowers. Celebrations are held at each of the squares and assembly halls, ranging from martial arts competitions to traditional Vietnamese games, like crossing a long stick of bamboo like a balance beam.
Near the bridge, dozens of vendors, women – some young but most very old – are selling handmade paper lanterns (for less than $.50 each). You place your lantern on a long stick with a cup holder basket at the bottom and lower your lantern into the river. Then you make a wish and float your lantern along with the hundreds of others. By about 8 p.m., the river is glowing.
If you miss the Lantern Festival, you can always swing by the Night Market any night of the week. It’s just across the main bridge from Ancient town, surrounded by popular bars and restaurants.
A cross-town extension of the commercial activity from ancient town and the stalls of the Central Market, the Night Market is worth a spin around even if you’re not in the mood for fried grasshoppers or trinket shopping.
The Original Makers
Some of us who reside in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. are quite proud of the resurgence of our “maker culture.” Artisans, clothing designers, craft brewers and distillers, and winemakers have brought the production of wonderful things back to our communities. But after a day walking around Hoi An, you realize you are among the original maker culture. People make, paint, weave, sew and carve everyday.
There are hundreds of tailor shops in the small city. It is one of the top places in the world to have suits and dresses hand made. If you bring a photo and a credit card, that’s a good start.
Choosing a tailor shop can be a challenge. There is a bit of a racket running where people will walk up to you and ask how long you are staying and then offer to bring you to their friend or family’s shop. They will receive between 30-40% of the purchase price for brining you in. It’s important to verify the quality of the shop before you go – try Trip Advisor or talk to your hotel.
I did both and chose a higher-end but reputable shop called Bebe where tailors work in a large sewing room connected to the fitting room. The store is beautiful, with rolls of fabric meticulously stacked against each of the walls of the store. I chose to have three suits and four shirts made after a serious negotiation with the sales rep, Jennifer. Jennifer immediately sized me up correctly with the phrase “Tomboy” and we were on our way.
She took great care of us during our eh hem five fittings before everything was finally completed. Some stores advertise a two-day turnaround for clothes, but I’d recommend at least 3-4.
An Bang Beach
About 5 km from ancient town, An Bang Beach is the best place to spend a hot day or go out for happy hour and dinner. Famous for its sandy beaches, An Bang is also known for the best seafood in town.
An Bang is popular, but still relatively pristine when it comes to development. The only structures built along the beach are wood-framed restaurants that each service chaise lounges with hand-thatched umbrellas on the beach below. Daytime can get crowded at the entrance near the main road, but walking 7-10 minutes past the round coconut boats to the left (facing the water) yields you a much more peaceful experience. The best part of An Bang is the soft sand and the shallow surf, so it’s easy to cool off without getting too deep, particularly on a choppy day.
Chairs should cost between 40,000-60,000 VND, but are free if you order lunch. Something as simple as fried rice with your choice of meat pretty much covers that cost. So you get a beach chair for the day, umbrella and lunch for less than $3 USD.
I’d also suggest checking the menus before you sit down. Make sure you’re comfortable with the selections and prices. Asian beer should be between 20,000 – 30,000 VND (up to $1.25 USD). If it’s much more, keep walking.
At night, An Bang is a great place for happy hour and dinner. You can peruse menus of the beach restaurants or venture off to find a good find on one of the side streets and alleyways. I highly recommend checking out Purple Lantern – best food we had in Hoi An. Just get directions before you go.
Keep in mind that beach vendors can be particularly aggressive here. Be firm, but respectful, if you don’t want to buy their products. Transportation: if your hotel has a shuttle, great! Use it. Otherwise taxis are about 80,000 VND into the ancient town. (Less than $4 USD) Biking is also an option for the courageous, but when traffic picks up, watch for cars and motorbikes and hope for the best.
Something tells me in a few years, hotels will be springing up along the coastline, so enjoy it now, travelers.
What the Pho?!
Lanterns and beaches aside, the food is reason enough to visit Central Vietnam. There are a few “must trys” when you come. The most famous local dish is Cao Lau (pronounced ‘cao’ as in cow, ‘lau’ as in ‘plough’), made with a thick rice flour noodle. The water to make the noodle comes from a single, ancient well just outside of Hoi An. It’s most commonly served with pork, coriander and vegetables, but permutations of the dish with tofu and other proteins are not difficult to find. You can get Cao Lau elsewhere in Vietnam but it’s best closest to the source.
Banh Mi is second on the list of “have tos” in Hoi An. Banh Mi shops are so fiercely competitive that there is a Bann Mi ‘war’ between two rival shops: Madame Khahn’s and Banh My Phoung.
The latter was featured in Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations. There was really no competition between the two for the tofu Banh Mi. Seated on a low plastic stool on the narrow sidewalk with a can of Heineken nearby, Banh My Phoung won hands down.
The day we left Vietnam we opted for a cooking class with Hoi An Eco Cooking Class. This is where we learned the finer points of making an authentic Pho as well as other Vietnamese dishes like tofu salad rolls and green papaya salad. A beef broth is not really a Pho until you add the spices and aromatics, like star anise, ginger, cinnamon sticks and coriander pods. Then, maybe an hour and a half later, you have simmered your way into a Pho-tastic experience.
The half-day tour began in the village market (much less chaotic than the Central Market) with our guide walking us through the produce, fish and meat stalls, stopping to identify each of the key herbs, vegetables and fruits commonly used in local dishes.
From the market, we traveled two-by-two in coconut boats up the river, stopping to fish for purple crabs. The environment could best be described as “palm everglades” without the alligators.
Once we reached the outdoor kitchen, we were introduced to the host family and their garden – the source of much of the produce and herbs for the class. We learned the history about how much of the food was made from scratch – even grinding their own rice to make rice paper – until they were connected to the electric grid in the early 1990s.
After a few hours of switching between salads and cooking stations, we sat down to enjoy the feast we prepared.
It was a fantastic way to spend our last day in Vietnam, honoring the ancient traditions and enjoying a lovely meal.
Construction in Central Vietnam is booming. Crews were working every day on projects on both sides of our hotel adjacent to the river. New restaurants and Western hotels are being built, catering to a higher-end market.
On the hour drive back to Danang airport, we passed several new resorts in the early stages of development and high-end gated communities with adjoining golf courses breaking ground. On the one side of the main road, you pass large garbage-ridden lots with dilapidated houses. On the beach side of the road, there are multi-million dollar developments. It’s a stark contrast to be sure. Vietnam is clearly experiencing a major influx of foreign investment. With it comes growing wealth, but for whom?
What is yet to be seen is whether the people of Vietnam will enjoy the benefits of this boom and whether the ancient traditions will be preserved an increasingly modern country.