by Kian Rackley
For shorter independent holiday itineraries, Hoi An is often omitted from travellers’ itineraries. However, for those that make the time, this small town in Vietnam’s central region of just 100,000 inhabitants is often the highlight of the trip.
Hoi An has an airport but most people arrive via Da Nang airport which is around an hour away by car. Another popular option is driving from Hue. Taking around 3.5 hours this unforgettable commute takes in the epic coastal scenery of the Hi Van Pass. Top Gearfans will recognise this drive from their now famous Vietnam special! Hoi An is readily accessible by bus and by train with transfers via bus from Nha Trang and Hue.
Much like many European cities, Hoi An is popular for its handsome architecture and enchanting ambiance. Built through the 15 and 19th centuries by indigenous Vietnamese and foreign traders (hailing from China to the Netherlands) the town is an architectural melting pot and widely recognised as one of the best preserved towns in South East Asia. Indeed such is its beauty that in 1999 it was accredited with UNESCO World Heritage status, taking Vietnam’s total UNESCO landmarks to an impressive seven.
As you walk the streets the first thing you’ll spot are the colonial style shop fronts which wouldn’t look out of place on a Parisian backstreet. Built by the French from the 1890’s onwards, the shops are still in use as they have been for centuries and house some of the town’s famous tailors, patisseries, boutique bars and restaurants. Japanese traders and settlers have also left their mark. In the heart of the old town you can see the famous Japanese Covered Bridge which straddles a tributary of the Thu Bon River and numerous houses which are built in a traditional Japanese style. These houses are often open to tourists with the tours run by families whose ancestors have occupied the homes since their construction.
Elsewhere you can explore one of the towns markets, see the Cantonese Assembly Hall or take a sunset cruise in the Thu Bon River. In Hoi An – more than any other destination in Vietnam – getting up early and walking the streets in the early-morning glow is a must. You can watch the sun rise over the river and the fishermen depart port, the locals prepare their market stallsand relax with a coffee as first light hits the magnificent shop-fronts.
Not elaborated on here but a 15 minute cab ride from the town centre will get you to Hoi An’s splendid stretch of coastline which has excellent views over the East China Sea and long sand strewn beaches!
Hoi An has a plethora of dining options and most are located on the restaurant strip on the other side of the river from the Japanese Bridge.
For breakfast or lunch you can grab something local or Western from one of the town’s French styled café’s or popular restaurants. Many of these are located around Tran Phu and Le Loi streets. A special favourite is Miss Ly Cafeteria located on Nguyen Hue Street. With excellent service and a mean array of local and regional dishes this place is one of my favourite restaurants in Vietnam – its fried wontons are exceptional! You may want to omit any sightseeing as this palace also offers some seriously good wines and beers and the portion sizes and impressive!
In the evening an outside or terraced experience is a must. As the sun falls the town springs to life. Across the river you’ll see illuminated traditional floats and shop fronts draped in brightly coloured Chinese and Vietnamese lanterns. With this in mind any riverside restaurant is a good option. Towards the higher end of the dining market, a favourite here is Mango Mango. Located just opposite the Japanese Bridge this stylish eatery serves up incredible Vietnamese fusion food with dishes like Pearl of China Sea and Mango Duck. You can also procure some excellent – if rather potent – cocktails, all complimented with great views of the town. Tasting menus start at around US$36 per person.
Despite the town’s quaint atmosphere, Hoi An has a subtle après dinner scene. Along the river front you can pull up a pew at one of few local bars (often more akin to someone’s home) and admire town’s luminescent river and streets. Beers at these quieter beverage houses cost $1 for a local fresh beer to between $3 and $5 for a regional bottled beer. If you’re up for something more high-brow then make your way to Red Bridge Restaurant and Wine Bar or one of the many small bars and cafes off Le Loi Street!
Kian is part of the digital team at Travel Indochina and has visited Vietnam twice; once with Travel Indochina and once as part of a year-long backpacking trip around Asia. His favourite Asian city remains Phnom Penh but Hoi An is still his top Vietnamese escape. Next on the cards is Burma or a cycling trip across Japan. Follow him on Twitter @travelindochina or check out Kian’s Google+ profile.