On the Thu Bon River in Central Vietnam lies a formally bustling and lively port town, once known as Faifo. At its height between the 15th and 18th centuries, today’s Hoi An is a striking relic of its own importance; a city frozen in time.
A long history has given Hoi An an electric and eclectic clash of cultures. Chinese and Japanese traders made the port their home – having been driven south by the winds of the monsoons – and under French rule, Hoi An was an important administrative centre.
Today, the town is a heady melting pot of cultural diversity, each of its settlers having left their respective architectural mark. Women in conical hats cycle the streets lined with the French colonial houses, pagodas and Chinese assembly rooms that make up this UNESCO World Heritage site.
Even when you plan to stay one night, the draw of this majestic little fishing town will draw you in for days at a time. Here are our top tips on what to see and do while you’re there.
What to do
Stroll around Old Town
The atmospheric Old Town is off-limits to all motorised traffic, giving the empty-of-mopeds streets a magical and ancient feeling. The French influence has resulted in an abundance of cafes and coffee shop culture, meaning that it’s a fantastic place to spend a few hours idly people watching. Ancient Town is also the place to pick up silk, oil paintings and pretty lanterns, making great souvenirs.
Order a bespoke outfit
If you’ve ever dreamed of the luxurious experience of having bespoke clothing made right to your measurements, then Hoi An is the place for you. At one of the city’s many tailoring shops, anything from suits and dresses to shoes and bags can be created for a snip of the Western price. You can even take an image of your favourite designer piece and have it expertly recreated right before your eyes. The best part is that orders will usually be ready for you to pick up in as little as 24 hours!
Visit the Japanese covered bridge
For graceful form mixed with spiritual significance, head to the Japanese covered bridge with its beautifully faded red colouring and pagoda roof. Built to connect the Japanese community with the Chinese quarter (who were previously separated by a small stream of water), the bridge acts as a symbolic gesture of peace. Two dogs and two monkeys stand guard – some locals claim that this is because the building of the bridge started in the year of the dog and finished in the year of the monkey, but no one is able to say for sure. Instead, it simply adds to the grandiose mystique of this beautiful structure.
Bask on the beach
Hiding around 4km from Hoi An is the beautiful coastline of Cua Dai beach. Just as picturesque – if not more so – than its Thai rivals, the beaches around here are far less crowded and, within a few minutes walking away from the beachfront resorts, have that secretive feeling of the undiscovered. It’s a simple one-road journey down to the beach, with plenty of mopeds or bicycles available to hire from Hoi An for as little as $1 a day.
Take a cooking class
Because of its favoured location close to the sea, Hoi An is home to many a cooking school. An excellent place if you fancy trying your hand at some Vietnamese-inspired cooking is Red Bridge Restaurant and Cooking School. Whip up local speciality dishes such as grilled fish in banana leaves, crispy pancakes rolled with herbs and beef salad in a bamboo basket and take home cooking skills that will impress forever.
Explore an ancient home
The historic beauty of Hoi An lies in its well-preserved relics from the past, including many homes that are now open for tourist visits. Among them, Tan Ky House stands clear as a perfect example of a merchant house from the 18th century, with its high ceilings, vaulted beams, carvings of crossed sabres and brightly open courtyard. It’s well worth a visit for a tantalising trip back in time, away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
What to eat
A Vietnamese pork and noodle dish found solely in Hoi An, legend has it that this dish can only be cooked with water from Ba Le Well. A perfect example of the clash of cultures in the city, this dish is thought to be made up from both Japanese and Chinese influence but is now so much part of Hoi An that no one influence can be pinpointed. Be sure not to miss your one chance to find out what all the fuss is about!
Bach Dang Street
For a taste of life like the locals, head to the Central Market where you’ll be faced with piles upon piles of fresh food and locally caught fish. Street food in Hoi An is renowned as some of the best in Vietnam and Central Market has all you could wish for. The food available is as culturally rich as the architecture it’s set against, with each stall specialising in a recipe passed down from generation to generation. This means every dish differs from another, giving you the perfect excuse to try them all!
107-109 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street
If there’s one restaurant you need to frequent whilst in Hoi An, it’s the Cargo Club. With its unbeatable roof terrace, picturesque view over Thu Bon River and penchant for excellent desserts, it’s the perfect place to while away a balmy evening. The menu consists of international and fusion food, paired with a wide range of cakes and pastries. The food is so good, you’ll hear Cargo Club’s name being bandied about town by everyone from day visitors to live-in locals.
Where to drink
111 Nguyen Thai Hoc
Grab a table at this bistro bar and enjoy the hearty party atmosphere, jam packed with locals and expats alike. The owner is always on hand to ensure that everyone’s having a good time and there’s enjoyable river views and delicious food if you find yourself feeling a bit peckish. What’s more, Mango Rooms can count Mick Jagger amongst its previous guests and, well, if it’s good enough for a Rolling Stone…
Before and Now
51 Le Loi Street
A boozy option for a late-night after party, the beer here is cheap and the happy hour lasts for four of them. A great place if you’re feeling super social and a little bit merry, it’s the place to go after hours whilst the rest of Hoi An peacefully sleeps.
Where to stay
Contrary to the likes of Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An is somewhat off the classic tourist trail and, as such, doesn’t have a myriad of backpacker-esque hostels. Never fear! The city is still dirt cheap and accommodation is highly affordable. Check out Hoa Binh Hotel (696 Hai Ba Trung Street) for a perfectly pleasant budget option – it even has a swimming pool!
If you’d like to escape to a little beachside luxury after a busy day of exploring, The Nam Hai might just be your dream destination. Swanky villas with private infinity pools sit next to an award-winning spa and a selection of gourmet restaurants to ensure that you’re perfectly rejuvenated for the morning after.
How to get there
Hoi An is right in the heart of the Vietnamese coastline, roughly halfway between Hanoi to the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south. If you’re flying in from outside of Vietnam, there are great deals to be had on flights to Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi with Expedia. From there, an internal flight to nearby Da Nang is the quick and easy option at just 30km away. However, if you’re on a budget, long haul night buses frequent the city too, carrying backpackers and locals alike – often en route from Hue or Nha Trang.
Matt is a travel writer based in London and has previously written for the likes of The Huffington Post, Londonist and Cool Places.