Hoi An – Strolling Through Vietnam’s Prettiest Colonial TownAnne Merritt
Hoi An is the type of place that, on paper, sounds like an ideal overnight stopover for travelers journeying down the long spine of Vietnam. It’s small, forever labelled “charming,” and the famed tourist sites of traditional houses and bridges are all located in a tight, walkable circuit. Ask any traveler, however, and they will tell you differently. “Hoi An,” they will inevitably say, “is a town you won’t want to leave.”
Located between the once-empirical Hue and breezy, beachy Nha Trang, this town’s multicultural architecture offers a glimpse into the foreign influences that have shaped Vietnam. In the 16th century, this town was a shipping powerhouse, attracting overseas merchants who would sometimes settle wealthily in the town. These foreign influences are still resonant in the town’s architecture, with centuries-old Chinese and Japanese buildings blending with French-style colonial structures. One of the biggest draws of this city is its historical feel, the fantastic absence of neon signs and skyscrapers. While the shops and restaurants are mostly tourist-oriented, the architecture and layout of the city remains beautifully uncompromised.
There’s no shortage of hotels in this vibrant tourist city. Hoi An, famous for its dime-a-dozen tailoring shops, is a popular stopover with bus tours and travel groups looking to score some cheap Vietnamese souvenirs. As a result, hotels and guesthouses vary from the uber-elegant to the bare-bones minimum. If you’re going to splurge, this is one of the best places to do it, with breezy, luxurious hotels like the Green Field Hotel (20$-35$/night for a double, www.hoiangreenfieldhotel.com). Budget travelers can take their pick from dozens of tiny guesthouses in the centre of the city. The popular Dai Long Hotel on Hai Ba Trung street, or the cosy Hop Yen Hotel on A Nhi Trung, offer rooms from 6$-10$ per night. These multi-purpose guesthouses will also help you with bus tickets, tourist maps, bike rentals, and even discounts on local tailors.
For sightseers, the heart of Hoi An lies over the Japanese bridge in the Old Town, where old Chinese shopfronts now boast tourist galleries and shops. For about 5$, visitors can buy a multipurpose ticket for five attractions. These tickets are available at most guesthouses. Some favourites of the tour include the Cantonese Assembly Hall (176 Tran Phu Street), whose cool chambers and ornate dragons are a photographer’s paradise. Hoi An’s three traditional old houses are a cross between museum and residences, where descendants of the founding families will show you around. The most attractive of the three is the Phung Hung house, also west of the Japanese bridge.
Hungry visitors will delight in Hoi An’s mix of tourist friendly international cuisine, along with mouthwatering local dishes made with the freshest fish and vegetables. Prices tend to be inflated in the tourist areas, but some of the best (and most scenic) spots are down by the river, either at the Blue Dragon (who also sponsor a local children’s charity), or across the water on Cam Nam island. Also on the island, the slightly-pricey Lighthouse Restaurant
offers unbeatable views along with its delicious food. Come sunset, many restuarants transform into lounges with dim lights and crowded patios. King Kong Bar on Cam Nam island is a friendly, funky nightspot. Backpackers also flock to the classy Tam Tam cafe on Nguyen Thai street, for drinks, snacks, and pool. Across the street from Tam Tam is a French-style bakery whose mouthwatering breakfasts will have you humming “La Vie En Rose.”
For souvenir-hunters, Hoi An is most famous for its 400+ made-to-measure tailor shops, who can stitch up anything from suits to dresses to robes in a few days’ time. There’s no shortage of tailors in central Hoi An, and the best way to scout the good shops is by word of mouth from fellow tourists. If you want to keep shopping, a dense cluster of galleries sits just east of the Japanese Bridge. The Central market, by Cam Nam bridge, boasts all the souvenir kitsch you’ll ever need, along with tasty local produce.
If you’re seeking a glimpse of a more authentic Vietnam, head to Cam Nam island, across Cam Nam bridge. Here, there are still hotels and cafes with all the usual amenities. But the beauty of this island comes in the winding alleys where you can stroll for hours, catching glimpses of real Vietnamese life though doorways and windows. The area around the shipyard is dotted with artisan workshops, where you can watch craftsmen make traditional Vietnamese wares.
If you’re keen to see some countryside, rent a bike from your guesthouse and head to Cua Dai beach, located a few kilometres outside of Hoi An. It’s a scenic ride, past green rice fields and winding roads, and the beach is a great spot to relax. Here, the water is clean and local vendors will keep your belly filled with fresh fruits and cold beers.
Anne Merritt is Canadian and has an English Literature degree. She has worked as a journalist for a university newspaper. She is currently living in Ayutthaya as an ESL teacher and is sharing her experience of Thailand with KhaoSanRoad.com.