You could spend a whole week in the UNESCO heritage town of Hoi An and still not cover everything. Here’s six things that should be high on anyone’s itinerary.
Home to just 120,000 people, Hoi An’s ancient town is one of the most walkable and picturesque destinations in Asia.
With its trademark pink bougainvilleas, mustard-yellow buildings, old wooden verandas and caged birds, the town is semi-pedestrianised so it’s easy to get around without fear of being run down by a mob on scooters.
The best way to discover this ancient town, a former trading port once known as Hai Pho (meaning seaside town), is to simply wander.
Hoi An’s architecture gives an insight into the town’s mixed heritage, with Dutch and French colonial houses squeezed between Chinese tea warehouses and Japanese temples.
These days there are around 1,000 ancient timber-frame buildings still standing, topped with hand-carved tiles. About 844 are listed for their historical value by UNESCO, but just 18 are open to visitors.
Hoi An is still one of Vietnam’s hidden gems
From the Central Market with its fresh produce and knock off goods, to the endless procession of custom-fit tailors and trinket shops, Hoi An is also something of a shopper’s paradise.
Almost every second shop here now sells souvenirs and tat aimed at tourists: it’s as though Hoi An’s planners discovered, somewhere along the line, the economic link between architectural restoration and tourist dollars.
If shopping’s not your thing, book yourself into one of the numerous Vietnamese cooking classes on offer or while away the time in the cafes, bars, temples, museums and art shops lining the Thu Bồn River.
Despite the vast number of tourists who descend on Hoi An each year – 2.68 million people visited in the first six months of 2018 alone – it is still regarded as one of Vietnam’s hidden gems.
Here’s a rough-and-ready guide of what you can do in Hoi An’s ancient town, whether you have a just a few hours or all the time in the world.
Wander the Ancient Town
There’s no better way to soak in the rich heritage of pre-colonial Vietnam than by wandering the storied streets of Hoi An. While the town once echoed with the cries of merchants from a dozen countries, it fell out of favour as a port when the river silted up, with all trade moving to Danang, 30km (18 miles) north. Its grand Chinese temples and sagging wooden houses and pagodas are in remarkably good shape despite 50 years of war, while its traffic-free laneways and colourful, lantern-lit riverside setting make it a uniquely atmospheric place to explore. Hoi An Ancient Town was classified as a National Cultural Heritage Site in 1985 and as a Special National Cultural Heritage Site in 2001 (amended in 2009).
Visit the Japanese Covered Bridge
Perhaps the most recognised symbol of Hoi An, the iconic Japanese Covered Bridge was built by Japanese merchants at the end of the 16th century. It connects the Japanese quarter with the Chinese neighbourhood on the other side of the river, and is the only known bridge attached to a Buddhist pagoda. Inside is a small temple to the Taoist god of weather, Tran Vo Bac De, an important figure to visiting sailors and merchants.
Haggle at the Night Markets
After exploring the wonders of the ancient town, head south over the central footbridge to Can Nam Island. The riverfront here is lined with bars offering ice-cold glasses of the daily-brewed refreshing lager called bia hơi at cheap prices. The Hoi An Night Markets are also on this side of the river, just 500m from the bridge at Nguyễn Hoàng Street. Elegant paper lanterns light the way as tourists hunt out souvenirs and t-shirts, a lot of it cheap junk imported from China. Be sure to barter and never take the first price offered. At dusk, street vendors appear enmasse to sell a staggering variety of tasty treats, including chicken, prawn, pork and vegetable skewers cooked over small charcoal barbeques.
Take a cyclo ride
It can be sweltering hot in Hoi An, day and night, so why trudge around when you can see the ancient town from the comfort of one of Vietnam’s iconic three-wheel cyclos? They are everywhere in Hoi An and and are a good way to get your bearings and discover some of the town’s important landmarks. A standard fare for cyclos is about 22,000 dong (US95c) per kilometre, although some charge a flat fee of around 300,000 dong (US$13) for 45 minutes. In short, the cost will depend on the willingness of the driver and your negotiating skills. Just be sure to agree on a set price before starting your journey.
Have Clothes Tailor-Made
It’s not often you can visit a tailor in the morning and collect your new made-to-measure threads a day or two later. But in Hoi An, where there are an estimated 150 tailor shops and around 500 actual tailors doing the work off site, creating a bespoke suit in a matter of hours, and for a snip of the price you’d pay on London’s posh Savile Row, has become an art form. Everywhere you look there are bolts of cloth on display with mannequins modelling sharply cut suits and dresses. I’ve only been to Mr Xe, a colourful character in the heart of the ancient town at 71 Nguyễn Thái Học, but his work is top class. Tape-measure around his neck, he and his team (pictured) will happily fit you for hand-tailored bespoke suits, trousers, shirts, blouses or dresses, to be knocked-up within just 48 hours. He generally charges US$100 for a suit and around US$20 for a shirt or shorts, depending how much you are ordering. Don’t be afraid to negotiate if you think the prices are a bit much. To be fair, they did throw in some alterations on other clothes for free, so it was a good deal all round.
Dine at Morning Glory
I won’t beat around the bush: one of the best places to sample fresh, authentic Vietnamese cuisine in a charming setting is the ever-popular Morning Glory, in the heart of the ancient town. Yes, it’s now so popular that it risks being over run with tourists, but that means it’s also doing something right. Owned and managed by chef, restaurateur and author Ms Vy, some of the popular dishes here include cao lau (rice noodles with fresh greens and croutons), banh xeo (crepes filled with prawns, beans sprouts and greens); white rose (dumplings of prawns in clear rice noodle) and pomelo salad with chicken and prawns. It’s a sprawling two-storey restaurant with seats inside and out, but it’s important to book or you might have to queue.