With its sturdy, timber-framed houses and pedestrianised streets, Hoi An can feel like a historical theme park at times, particularly when it is crowded with tourists. Yet this quaint coastal town is often singled out by visitors to Vietnam as the highlight of their trip. There’s no doubt that the well-maintained merchants’ houses and assembly halls are part of the town’s attractions, but the chance to buy distinctive crafts and tailored clothes, as well as tasting local cuisine and visiting local beaches are further temptations to stay.
Once known as Fai Fo, the town rose to prominence because of its location on the banks of the Thu Bon River, which proved to be an excellent anchorage for foreign ships. However, the river silted up at the end of the 19th century and Da Nang took its place as the main port on Vietnam’s central coast. Unlike Hue, the town was largely unaffected by battles with the French and Americans, and in 1954 its name was changed to Hoi An. In 1999, it was granted UNESCO World Heritage Status and since then has appeared on more and more tourist itineraries.
There are hundreds of historical buildings in Hoi An’s Old Town, but only 15 of them are open to visitors. Several kiosks around town sell a ticket that admits you to five of these attractions, which include the Japanese Covered Bridge, one of the merchants’ houses, one of the museums, one of the assembly halls and the handicraft workshop. That can take the best part of a day and is usually enough for most people, but if you find you are captivated by all this history, it’s easy to just buy another ticket and go on sightseeing at another five locations. Here we’ll mention five of the best.
The photogenic Japanese Covered Bridge is probably Hoi An’s best-known icon, and harks back to the days when Japanese and Chinese merchants settled in the town. Originally built in around 1600, it has been renovated frequently, but still maintains the simple lines that make it so attractive. There is a small temple on the bridge that hangs over the water and statues of monkeys and dogs at each end, which is thought to indicate the years in which construction began and ended.
Of the merchants’ houses, probably the most interesting is the Tan Ky House, formerly occupied by merchants from Fujian in China but now under Vietnamese ownership. In design it is similar to the ‘tube houses’ of Hanoi, with a narrow frontage backed by a shop, living area, open courtyard, bedrooms and then storerooms. The architecture is influenced by Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese design and the wooden beams are carved with images of crabs. Guides show visitors around and the tour is very informative, but it can get crowded so it’s better to go early or late in the day.
The Fujian Assembly Hall was constructed in the 17th century as a temple that was later dedicated to Thien Hau, Goddess of the Sea, and a statue of her stands on the main altar, flanked by two assistants. There is also a scale model of a Chinese junk of the type that once came here to trade. The house is fronted by a brightly-painted triple gate that was added in 1975.
There are four museums to choose from, although you can visit more by paying extra, and which one you choose will depend on your interest. Given the focus on architecture in this town, it’s worth checking out the Museum of Trading Ceramics, where an exhibition detailing the restoration of Hoi An’s Old Town gives an idea of what has been achieved in the last couple of decades. The Museum of History and Culture displays Cham artefacts as well as ceramics from early trading days and ancient maps, while the Museum of Sa Huynh Culture focuses on a distinctive lifestyle of nearby Sa Huynh from 200BC to 200AD.
The handicraft workshop, which is also included in the general ticket price, is a good place to end your tour of Hoi An. Here you can watch artisans making silk lanterns and embroidered panels of the type that are on sale in souvenir shops all over town, and get an idea of the work that goes into them. Cultural shows are staged here each day at 10:15 and 15:15.
While wandering round the traffic-free streets, your eyes are bound to be attracted by the bright silk jackets, shawls and dresses in the windows of the many tailors around, and by the striking paintings and carvings in front of the art and craft shops. Shopping for distinctive souvenirs like these is part of the fun of a visit to Hoi An, and it’s not unusual to see huge crates labelled to countries all over the world being packed for shipping in front of the traders’ homes.
Where to stay in Hoi An
Life Heritage Resort: Located just a few minutes’ walk from the Old Town, this is the ideal place to stay in Hoi An. Split-level rooms include a sleeping area, a living area and a balcony, all comfortably funished, and there’s a decent-sized pool. Rooms from US$166; 1 Pham Hong Thai Street, Hoi An Riverside, Hoi An… more details and booking
Minh A Ancient Lodging House: Here’s the chance to stay in an Old Town family home without burning a hole in your pocket, but you’ll have to make do without air con and put up with shared bathrooms. Rooms from US$15; 2 Ngyuyen Thai Hoc, tel: +84 510 386 1368.
More on Hoi An hotels and guesthouses.
Where to eat in Hoi An
Mango Rooms: Get ready for some surprising fusion combinations here, such as prawns in passion fruit and chocolate, in an ultra-hip setting. Open: 09:00 to midnight (daily); 111 Nguyen Thai Hoc, Hoi An, tel: +84 510 391 0839, email: email@example.com, website: www.mangorooms.com.
Miss Ly Cafeteria: This friendly, family-run place serves up some wonderful local specialities, such as banh bao – delicious mouthfuls of crab or shrimp wrapped in manioc. Open: 08:30-22:00 (daily);22 Nguyen Hue, tel: +84 510 386 1603.
Getting to Hoi An
Regular buses connect Hoi An with Hanoi and Saigon, but since the journey takes the best part of a day, you might consider flying to Da Nang, from where it is just a 45-minute drive.