Hoi An is a beautiful, picturesque town about halfway up the coastline of Vietnam. There are a few beaches on the outskirts of town but the town itself is the real star of the show here. With minimal traffic in the town center, it’s easy to get around on foot and wandering the streets here is like touring around a living museum. In fact, the town itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and with the number of shrines, temples and ancient buildings peppered throughout Hoi An it’s no wonder that it has received this accolade.
The town served as a major South East Asian trading port from the 15th to the 19th century and the buildings reflect the influences of all who passed through here. It’s the only town in the entire country that survived the devastation of the war and remained virtually untouched. Almost all the buildings are constructed from wood, combining design influences from Vietnam, China and Japan. The houses follow the plan of house, yard, house and you can go in and out of some of the more famous ones on your one day ticket.
On one side of the old town a river runs a long where locals will take you for a one hour paddle around the little harbor area. Bigger traditional boats sit, moored on the tranquil waters and serve for great photo ops with the yellow traditional buildings of Hoi An in the background.
As romantic a notion as you might be getting of Hoi An, don’t be mistaken, this is a tourist town. Actually, it’s probably one of Vietnam’s most visited towns. The vast majority of these beautiful old buildings are occupied by restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops and tailors. Older tourists go by in convoy on cycle rickshaw and at night people are shooting glow in the dark toys into the sky. It can be a bit of a circus but should not be overlooked and not left out of any Vietnam itinerary.
If you want to escape the town for a while then take a bicycle and get lost in the rice paddies that separate the outskirts of Hoi An and the beaches to the north. Cycling along the roads comes with it’s own risks as trucks, buses and taxis zoom along next to you. You can get off the road at places and see more of real life. Buffalo work in the fields, locals farm the fields and people look out from their porches smiling. We even cycled past a man out walking his buffalo along the path; a mother and baby, pretty cool!
Back in town, there’s a fruits and veg market at one end of town and it’s a hive of activity. Elderly women sit around their fruits and vegetables in the traditional triangle-shaped hats selling their produce. There’s a fish market too and most of the vendors didn’t seem to mind you taking pictures of what was going on. A very ‘real’ part of the town that serves as a welcome break from the calls of “”suit sir”, “come look in my shop” from the tailors around town. Be aware though if anyone comes offering you a ‘free tour’ of the market as you will inevitably end up at a tailors workshop at the end of it.
There are a few decent stretches of beach near Hoi An, which are all within cycling distance, depending on your energy levels. Cua Dai Beach is the main beach, just 7km from Hoi An. There are a few budget restaurants and homestays in the area. Along the beach, there are a couple of bars serving up a bit of everything and most have sunloungers outside them. One rents surfboards. An Banh beach is another option, just 5km from Hoi An where most of the expensive resorts are located. Still you can get your $1 lunch here on the beach, served up from a one top stove and a cooler box by a happy local. Happy days!