Hoi An was without doubt one of our favourite places in Vietnam. It has that really special something that will make you fall in love with it instantly. We only spent a few hours wandering around the streets of the ancient town, but were truly amazed by its charm, authenticity, and explosion of colour. The streets are so memorable and picture perfect, with all the traditional yellow tube houses and lanterns hanging off every house, every restaurant, across streets, everywhere. As you walk around, you would think there is some kind of festivity going on, but no, this is what Hoi An looks like on a normal day, which is pretty awesome. In fact, there is a lantern festival taking place here every month. You can check dates well in advance and book accordingly, but expect big crowds. We didn't visit on that day and it still looked really festive and magical!
Once in Vietnam, it's not hard at all to get to Hoi An. Da Nang, the 3rd largest city in the country, is only a 30-40 minute drive away and this is your gateway to the central part of the country. There are things to do in and around Da Nang (Marble Mountains, Laddy Buddha, Ba Na Hills, the beach but that extends all the way to Hoi An, etc.), but other than that, it is not a very interesting city in itself. That is why we decided to spend the night in Hoi An instead. The accommodation there is really great value, better than Hanoi - hostels are super cheap, and you could easily book a 4* hotel for a very reasonable price. That's one of the things I really like about SE Asia, you really can afford incredible accommodation that would cost a fortune in a big European city. As for how to get to Hoi An, taxis are pretty cheap in Vietnam and can arrange one through your hotel (should be no more than $15). There are regular buses that link the two cities ($1), but you won't find them at the airport. There is no train.
The place we stayed at in Hoi An was amazing and I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, Lasenta Boutique Hotel (click for Booking link) - very elegant and tastefully decorated, great rooms with the most comfortable bed, friendly attentive staff, the best massages, a pool with a view to the rice fields, and a fabulous breakfast buffet.
There is more to do in Hoi An than just walk around and explore. The city is world-famous for tailoring, and many people go there for the purpose of getting clothes done. The skillful tailors there can put together any outfit in a matter of hours at a very reasonable price - you can select any design from their catalogue or bring one of your choice!
Needless to say, be careful where you go, check reviews to make sure you get what you pay for, and expect to spend a little extra for the quality. There are lots of little tailor shops around the old town, and some of them, like Yaly, look pretty impressive! We had little time and didn't get anything done, but we did go in just for the experience, browsed some catalogues and had a look around to see what the process looks like - quite interesting, and if you spend a few days here, maybe worth going for it!
The food in Hoi An is amazing, in line with the Vietnamese cuisine which we love, yet quite distinctive! We had dinner at Lantern Town, just beside the river, which looked so inviting, had a really cozy atmosphere, and the food was delicious!
The Night Market
A walk along the river is the perfect way to end your day in Hoi An. It should be no surprise that a city filled with lanterns really comes alive when the night falls. They adorn houses, market stalls, wooden boats, and there are many tiny floating candles flowing down the river - a really magical sight!
Cross the bridge and you get to the night market, which is small, but we liked it more than other bigger ones, such as the one in Hanoi - felt more authentic. The main attraction there is of course the array of stalls overflowing with handmade lanterns. The lanterns themselves are surprisingly cheap to buy and make for the perfect souvenir. Might be hard to transport a large one especially if you are touring across SE Asia, but otherwise we paid around 4$ for one, and we didn't even have to haggle - which in general, you should, by the way!
One thing about Hoi An that can be a pain is the weather, which is very unpredictable, and if you're unlucky, it can rain there all day, every day. In Vietnam, the weather in the northern, central, and south areas can be very different. Dry season in Hanoi can be rainy season in Hoi An, so if you plan to visit all at once, that may be a problem. We were a bit worried when we heard about Typhoon Damrey, which caused major flooding in Hoi An the weekend before our stay there. The ground floor of buildings along the river was almost entirely submerged in water. It seemed like the worst time to visit, but then decided we'd just go with it - and good thing we did, because within a week not only was the water gone, but we had 3 days of continuous sunshine and hot weather. The city looked as new, as if nothing ever happened. Sure, during that week, the APEC summit took place in the nearby Da Nang, and with all the important presidents in attendance, I am sure that put some pressure into getting everything nice and tidy, and it just shows how resilient the locals are, being able to handle situations like this. Anyway, flooding is not uncommon in Hoi An, it happens almost every year, locals know what to expect, and there is not so much damage in the old town itself. The bottom line is, be careful when you book to increase your chances of getting nice weather. Hoi An is an amazing place regardless, and it’s worth taking that risk!
Things to do
The old town of Hoi An is a small, intimate place and all attractions are very close to each other and may take minutes to visit. It is the old town itself that is the main attraction, an open-air museum where one could spend a whole day just wandering around. Technically you need a ticket to enter the old city - there is no official entrance, but you may be checked at any time, or so we've been told. That also includes entry to 5 attractions of your choice (would recommend the Japanese Covered Bridge, the Assembly Hall of the Fujian Chinese Congregation, the Cantonese Assembly Hall, the Old House of Tan Ky, and... you pick the last one). Just attempt to visit somewhere, and you will get pointed to the nearest place to buy the ticket. By the way, this ticket is very cheap (around 5-6$) and it will most likely cover you for your entire stay - a small price to pay for the preservation of a wonderful place. This is very much needed, as Hoi An is threatened by weather above all, but also the fact that the place has become very touristy lately. Still, it hasn't lost its authenticity at all. Today, the old town is a UNESCO World-Heritage site, for good reason!
There is plenty to see outside of Hoi An and two of the most popular day trips are the ancient temple ruins of My Son and the nearby city of Da Nang.
About 1h drive from Hoi An you will find My Son. First thing you should know about this place is that is not pronounced the way you just read it in your mind, but "Mi-Sun", meaning beautiful mountain. This ancient temple complex is pretty remote and may be hard to find if you travel on your own, so don't go around asking locals "I can't find my son! Where is my son??" or they might get the wrong message.
My Son is a ruined Hindu sanctuary with temples dating from as early as 4th century and an important place of worship for the Cham people that ruled over Central/South Vietnam until 19th century. Because it is not Buddhist and hence no longer in use, My Son is very different from other temples in Vietnam, which is what makes it so special.
Sadly, many of the My Son temples have been destroyed in the Vietnam/American war, with only one cluster left in good condition. The area has been heavily bombed - you can still see the craters as you walk around! Weather and time have also taken a toll on this place and some of the statues have been removed by the French for display in the Louvre. My Son thus feels underwhelming compared to other Hindu temples like Angkor, but it's still worth seeing as it captures so much of the country's history. Significant effort is now put into the restoration of this UNESCO World Heritage site.
Ah, and if you are lucky, you may get to see the hypnotising traditional Apsara Cham dance during your visit to My Son!
Da Nang is the 3rd largest city in Vietnam. The city itself is quite industrial and lacks the charm, but there are a few places there which may be worth including in your itinerary.
We decided to spend a few hours at the Marble Mountains. Those are 5 marble and limestone hills named after the 5 elements: Kim (metal), Thuy (water), Moc (wood), Hoa (fire) and Tho (earth). Thuy is the largest and most beautiful and the panoramic view from the top is quite impressive! What makes this place interesting is that as you make your way to the top of the hill, you will pass by many pagodas, shrines and also Buddhist sanctuaries *inside* caves.
As the name suggests, these small mountains are rich in great quality marble, which has been mined for many years. Today, extraction is no longer allowed, so don't believe what the local merchants may tell you about their souvenirs!
Aside from a place of worship, the mountains were also used by the monks to hide treasures in the old days and as a hospital for the Vietnamese during the Vietnam/American war, hidden in plain sight (Da Nang was a major US base during the war).
While in Da Nang, you may want to also make a stop at the Linh Ung Pagoda, known for its remarkable statue of Lady Buddha, and the famous yellow dragon bridge (which on some evenings spits fire and water!). Unfortunately, we didn't have enough time to see either.
The Hai Van Pass awaits just north of Da Nang. This is a very scenic mountainous road which you will likely cross if you travel between Hue and Da Nang/Hoi An, by car or motorbike - many people choose the latter. Actually there are two roads connecting Da Nang to the north: it's either a 21km scenic drive along the windy roads of Hai Van Pass (obviously more interesting) or a 7km drive along the Hai Van Tunnel (faster, safer), which is in fact the longest tunnel in SE Asia!